House of Commons
Wednesday 8 June 2016
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What steps the Government is taking to support manufacturing in Northern Ireland. 
Our long-term plan is delivering a stronger economy across Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. We are keeping interest rates low by dealing with the deficit, and we are boosting enterprise and investment by cutting corporation tax.
The manufacturing sector makes up roughly one in four jobs in Northern Ireland, so it is not surprising that 81% of businesses in Northern Ireland want us to stay in the European Union. Are those businesses right, or is the Secretary of State right?
The Government’s position on this is clear, and we are united in delivering our long-term economic plan to ensure that we deliver economic stability for Northern Ireland. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will welcome confirmation in the Assembly only this week that 80,000 people are working in manufacturing in Northern Ireland—more than at any point since Labour crashed the economy in 2008.
Just this morning the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee began an inquiry into the energy sector, in particular the electricity sector, in Northern Ireland, and high energy costs are a problem for the manufacturing sector. No doubt we will speak to the Secretary of State, or perhaps a Minister, about that issue, but does she have any initial thoughts on that problem?
I gather that my hon. Friend has been having lively discussions in his Committee on these matters, including on issues relating to the super-connector. It is important that those issues are resolved, so that everything possible can be done to keep energy costs low in Northern Ireland. The UK Government have taken action to support high-energy industries, saving them around £400 million over this Parliament, including exemptions from certain EU obligations.
The Secretary of State will be well aware that many companies in Northern Ireland are seriously worried about the impact on them of the new apprenticeship levy. In the light of those concerns, what steps is she taking in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Assembly to soften the blow of that new levy?
I discussed those matters yesterday with the Minister responsible for apprenticeship and skills. The Government are working closely with the Executive to try to resolve concerns about the levy, and we are determined to minimise any administrative difficulties that come as a result of it. In reality, the levy will deliver a significant sum to support apprenticeships in the whole United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.
It is clearly good news that manufacturing jobs and output are increasing in Northern Ireland. What further steps can my right hon. Friend take to ensure that the Northern Ireland economy is further rebalanced in favour of the private sector?
The implementation of the Stormont House agreement, and the measures on economic reform that it contains, are vital, as it is that the Government continue with their long-term economic plan, which is delivering the stability that manufacturing needs to flourish in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State recently joined the chief executive officer of Invest Northern Ireland at the successful launch of the “Exporting is GREAT” roadshow, and I thank her for attending. Northern Ireland is the only region of the United Kingdom in which exports have grown by 9% in the past 12 months. What other initiatives will the Government commit to, to ensure that exporting continues to be boosted for companies in Northern Ireland?
We will continue with our “Exporting is GREAT” programme which, as the hon. Gentleman said, has a strong focus in Northern Ireland, and we will use our network of embassies around the world to promote Northern Ireland. It is positive that there is a commitment to devolving corporation tax setting powers to the Northern Ireland Executive as soon as finances are sustainable enough to make that possible, and the forthcoming reduction in corporation tax will be an even greater support for exports.
The Secretary of State will know that Northern Ireland exports as much to the rest of the EU as it does to the rest of the world combined. Does she therefore appreciate just how important that makes continued membership of the EU to businesses in Northern Ireland, and will she encourage a remain vote to help those businesses?
The Government remain absolutely committed to doing all we can to promote exports from Northern Ireland and inward investment into Northern Ireland. Both sides of the debate are committed to continuing to work together strongly to deliver our manifesto commitments and our long-term economic plan, whatever the outcome of the referendum on 23 June.
Mr Speaker and fellow Europeans, I have no doubt that the Secretary of State will join me and the House in welcoming the latest official trade figures, which show an increase in manufacturing exports. The value of goods exported in the last period was up by £6.6 billion—a 9% increase—from 2015. Interestingly, they also show that the majority of exports—52%—went to the EU, while the largest value increases were to the United States of America and South Korea. Does this not prove the case for remaining? Do we not have the best of both worlds? Do we not have an ideal opportunity to trade with the world’s biggest trading bloc and the major economies of the rest of the world? I am sure she will agree with that.
I agree with the Prime Minister’s statement that trade will continue after the referendum, whatever the result. He was clear that we would continue to trade with the EU if the British people choose on 23 June to leave the EU.
2. What recent discussions she has had on the security situation in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. 
The Government are determined to do everything possible to keep people in Northern Ireland safe. I meet the Chief Constable, the Justice Minister and others regularly to discuss the security situation. I would like to acknowledge the exceptional work of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which does an outstanding job tackling the terrorism threat.
Will the Secretary of State join me in praising our security services for helping recently to uncover a cache of paramilitary arms? If she can, will she tell the House whether the armaments found were a historical cache or more modern weaponry?
The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there are limits to what I can share with the House, but I can assure him that the police are doing everything they can to bring to justice whoever was responsible for this cache of arms and that efforts, both north and south of the border, remain intense in seeking to press down on the terrorist threat. Sadly, there continues to be a significant amount of activity from small groupings seeking to pursue their aims by terror, but, thankfully, in the vast majority of cases, their plans do not result in harm being carried out, and that is because of the excellent work of the police.
11. It is obviously excellent and heartening news that the number of shooting incidents has fallen to its lowest level since 1969, but there obviously remains a credible threat from dissidents. Does the Secretary of State agree that even more needs to be done to choke off funding from organised crime and smuggling on both sides of the border? 
A huge amount of work is being done on these matters, but my hon. Friend is right that more can always be done. I warmly welcome the publication of the report on paramilitary activity by the panel this week. We have managed to get national security attacks down to 16 in 2015 from 40 at their peak in 2010, but it is crucial that Northern Ireland as a whole moves forward, away from paramilitarism. Many of the recommendations in the panel’s report will help us to achieve the goal of ending paramilitary activity.
I am sure the Secretary of State and the whole House will join me in wishing Northern Ireland and the green and white army all the very best in the Euros, which start this Friday. Indeed, I extend that to all the teams involved from the British Isles.
On a more serious note, on security, the threat level assessment of Irish-related terrorism was recently raised from “moderate” to “substantial” for Great Britain. Has the Secretary of State given further consideration to the calls to increase PSNI numbers by 1,000, as recommended by the Police Federation, and certainly to bring them up to the level recommended by Patten?
I share the right hon. Gentleman’s sentiments on the Northern Ireland football team and the other teams from the British Isles. I wish them well in the competition.
On the security situation, the Government of course support the efforts by the police, not just through the block grant but through the additional security funding, and further funding will be made available to tackle paramilitarism under the “Fresh Start” agreement. It is crucial that every effort be made in this area. The UK Government will continue to do all they can to support efforts to keep people in Northern Ireland safe and secure.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the panel set up under the “Fresh Start” agreement reported today on ways to tackle paramilitarism. Some of the recommendations fall within the remit of the Northern Ireland Office. Will she give an initial response to the report, and will she join me, the Northern Ireland Executive and all the parties in Northern Ireland committed to ensuring that the choice for people in Northern Ireland is now clear—either a democratic, peaceful way forward, or facing the courts and prosecution by the police?
I can certainly agree with the right hon. Gentleman on those sentiments. It is a continuing tragedy that so many people in Northern Ireland are injured or murdered as a result of these brutal paramilitary-style assaults. My initial reaction to the panel’s report is to welcome it. I think it makes many good points, and I very much look forward to working with the Northern Ireland Executive as they develop their strategy in response to this important report.
Following on from that, yesterday’s panel report publication suggests that the PSNI has chosen to engage with some known terrorists rather than arrest them. How concerned is the Secretary of State about that assertion?
The panel makes reference to certain contacts that have taken place on an informal basis with some of these groupings. The panel’s report sets out a road map to seeing an end to those kinds of interactions. It is something that we shall work towards in the future because we do not want these organisations to exist any more.
3. What discussions she has had with the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly on the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU; and if she will make a statement. 
5. What discussions she has had with the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly on the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU; and if she will make a statement. 
Ministers have regular meetings with representatives of the Northern Ireland parties to discuss a range of issues. The Government’s position is clear: we are safer, stronger and better off in a reformed European Union.
Only two countries in the EU run a trade surplus with Britain: Holland and Germany, and the rest have a deficit. If there is Brexit, the rest will vote for tariffs, which would lead to inward investment moving from Northern Ireland into southern Ireland, and it will be the same for extra opportunities and jobs. How can the Minister and indeed the Secretary of State justify supporting Brexit when it will lead to a movement of jobs to the south, along with advancing the cause of unification and the rising of sectarian tensions?
If I may correct the hon. Gentleman, I fully support remaining in the European Union, and so do the United Kingdom Government. We are acutely aware of the points he raised, as 87% of the agricultural exports of Northern Ireland go south to the Republic, and we do not want to see any trade barriers put in the way. That is why we want to remain in the European Union.
There has been a period in which both Ireland and Britain have been outside the European Union and a period in which they have both been inside it, but if we vote to leave, it will be an historically unprecedented period in which one is out and the other is in. What assessment is the Department making of the impact of that on the border between our great nations?
The Government are clear that, should the United Kingdom leave the European Union, the border between the EU and UK will be the land border in Northern Ireland. That will place us outside the customs union, which will mean delay, checks and other reforms that will hamper our ability to export to and import from the Republic of Ireland.
Does the Minister not agree that the reality is that trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will continue very much as it has for centuries—regardless of whether we are in or out of the European Union?
What my hon. Friend misses is that export into the Republic of Ireland is also a gateway into the rest of the European Union and provides access to 500 million customers for United Kingdom goods. If we leave the European Union, that will, of course, be hampered; there will be a customs union on our borders, which will mean delays and barriers to our trade.
The Secretary of State will have noticed the recent significant slowdown in foreign direct investment into Northern Ireland because of the uncertainty about the outcome of the referendum. Has the Secretary of State made any assessment of the impact of a UK exit on the future of job creation and specifically of a British exit decision that might arrest foreign direct investment and render the reduction in corporation tax as of little benefit?
It is certainly the view of the United Kingdom that if we leave the European Union, that foreign direct investment would be put under threat. It might go elsewhere in the EU rather than in the UK. We do not want to see that happen; we want to continue to remain in the EU. Luckily, I think for all of us, there is not long to go before we can cast our votes.
The EU debate has focused over the last few days on migration. Does the Minister agree that migrants have brought in great skills to Northern Ireland, and will he clarify how he sees migration working after Brexit, if we leave?
What is often missed by people who want us to leave the European Union is the fact that, owing to our United Nations obligations under the 1951 treaty, the 1967 appendix and the 1984 and 1989 convention rights, if we did leave we would have to continue to take people who come to our shores seeking asylum and refuge. We would still not be able to decide 100%. Only North Korea can do that, and I do not fancy following North Korea.
During his discussions with the Northern Ireland parties, has the Minister said whether he thinks that it would help the police if we left the European Union, given that, before the introduction of the European arrest warrant, extradition took, on average, a year rather than the 48 days that it takes now, and given that 162 criminals have been removed from Northern Ireland since 2009 through the use of the arrest warrant?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. The ability to remove people whom we do not want so that they face trial elsewhere in Europe is a very powerful tool for our forces of law and order in Northern Ireland. We have deported 190 people to face trial, including terrorists from Spain, and we have managed to bring back 34 people to face justice in the United Kingdom. That is a tool that we need: it keeps people safe in Northern Ireland and in the United Kingdom as a whole, and to turn our backs on it would be foolish.
I agree with what the Minister has said, even if his own Secretary of State does not.
Both the Chancellor and the Northern Ireland Office have spelt out the consequences for the border of leaving the EU. Moreover, I have a copy of a letter to the Newry Chamber of Commerce & Trade in which the Home Office also spells out the potential consequences for the common travel area, given that an estimated 30,000 people cross the border every day. The letter states:
“If the UK left the EU these arrangements would be put at risk.”
Does the Minster agree, and has he told the Northern Ireland parties that?
The common travel area existed before the European Union, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is totally unclear what arrangements would exist after a Brexit. That is why the best solution is to remain in the European Union, so that we can take advantage of both the single market and the free travel of people, skills and trade that we enjoyed before membership.
4. What steps the Government is taking to tackle the increased terrorism threat in Great Britain from Northern Ireland. 
Our first duty is to keep people safe, and we give our full support to the police and the intelligence services. The threat level in Great Britain recently changed to “substantial”, meaning that an attack by dissidents is a strong possibility. People should be vigilant and alert, but not alarmed.
Police and prison officers who tirelessly serve the community day in and day out are often the targets of republican dissident activity. What measures are being taken to mitigate the risk that they face?
An extensive range of measures are being taken. The protection of police and prison officers is at the heart of our efforts to counter the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland, because the threat that they face is one of the most serious faced by any profession. The additional security funding provided by the Government under the “Fresh Start” agreement is contributing to necessary protections for the police and prison officers who do such an important job for our whole community, and we will continue to do all that we can to protect them.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, while we face a threat from dissident republicans in Northern Ireland, the greatest such threat comes from the Republic of Ireland, as has been demonstrated by the recent arms and explosives finds and arrests, and does she agree that those dissident republicans have the capacity to launch campaigns on the UK mainland?
It is certainly true that dissident republican terrorist groupings have the aspiration to attack in Great Britain. Their main focus remains Northern Ireland, but they do have that capability and lethal intent. Every effort is being made to counter their activities, including their activities south of the border, through the co-operation that now exists between the police services and other security organisations in the north and the south.
Organised Crime and Terrorism
6. What discussions she has had with the Irish Government on cross-border efforts to stop organised crime and terrorism. 
In December, as part of the implementation of the “Fresh Start” agreement, I attended a meeting with the Irish Government and Northern Ireland Executive at which we agreed on new measures to enhance co-operation on cross-border organised crime.
I strongly welcome the arrangements that have been agreed as part of the “Fresh Start” agreement, but does the Secretary of State agree that there must be both strategic and operational co-operation to dismantle gangs and their activities?
I would agree, and that is exactly what is happening. The new joint agency taskforce established as a result of the “Fresh Start” agreement enables exactly that kind of operational co-operation on cross-border crimes such as fuel laundering, human trafficking and drug smuggling, and I welcome the progress that has been made on that.
Does the Secretary of State agree that is really important that cross-border crime should be tackled as part of the follow-up to the panel’s report on paramilitary activity? It will continue whether we are in the European Union or outside it, and it must be tackled head on.
There is absolute determination on the part of the Governments of the UK and Ireland and the law enforcement agencies of both countries that we should continue to do everything we can to co-operate in countering the terrorist threat and the criminality associated with terrorist and paramilitary groups.
The Secretary of State must recognise how much organised crime—including cross-border crime—is derived from paramilitarism, and how much it uses networks and assets that have been accrued under paramilitary campaigns. Does she therefore agree that any serious effort to eradicate paramilitarism on a whole-community and whole-enforcement basis cannot ignore such criminal enterprises with menaces, which are the vestiges of paramilitarism?
I agree, and it will be well worth considering the views in the panel’s report on the laws that apply to organised crime in Scotland and the ways of cracking down on this kind of criminality there. It will be worth considering whether we could learn lessons from Scotland and impose statutory changes of that nature in Northern Ireland.
Implications of the UK Leaving the EU
7. What assessment she has made of the potential implications for border controls and security in Northern Ireland of the UK leaving the EU. 
Having the UK and Ireland in the EU guarantees the free movement of people and goods across the border, boosting cross-border co-operation and trade. The UK and Ireland will always co-operate closely on security matters, but membership of the EU enhances our ability to co-operate with member states to combat crime and terrorism and keep our country safe.
The most passionate Europhile I know is the Irish ambassador to the UK, Dan Mulhall. He says that, in the event of Brexit, the principles of the Good Friday agreement and the common travel area would be maintained. Rather than inflating fears about the border, is it not incumbent on our Minister to de-escalate and deflate those straw men?
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a keen campaigner for Brexit and he no doubt also wants to control his borders. He cannot have it both ways. He cannot want to control his borders and make checks while letting everything just carry on as normal. With all due respect to the Republic of Ireland, it would be up to the European Union to decide what it did on the border of its customs union and not necessarily up to individual states. That is why Brexit would put our safety at risk and put barriers to trade across that border.
As has been mentioned, we have had a common travel area between southern Ireland and Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom as a whole for 100 years. What reassurances can the Minister give me that, regardless of the outcome of the referendum—he will know that I back remain—cross-border co-operation and security will remain a priority in Westminster and in Stormont?
We will of course seek continued security co-operation. No one is alleging that that would stop, but we would perhaps lose the European arrest warrant, Europol and all the organisations that allow us to build trust and to carry out successful intelligence work in order to counter terrorism.
Does the Minister agree that it is inconceivable that there would be no changes to the current cross-border arrangements if the UK were to leave the EU? Will he urge the Secretary of State finally to admit that she is wrong to say that there would be no such changes, primarily because this is a matter not just for her but for the Irish Government, and Ireland would still be in the European Union?
The hon. Gentleman is correct. There are two options for what happens at the border: either there would be more controls at the UK’s border with the Republic of Ireland and the European Union, or there could be an internal border within the United Kingdom similar to the one we had after the war, but I do not think that the Unionists in Northern Ireland would want that at all.
Will the Minister of State assure me that the amicable relationship between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland will continue, no matter what the outcome of the referendum, and that any adjustments that need to be made when we vote to leave the EU will be decided through mutual agreement between the two nations? That is the way in which all business should be done.
Were the United Kingdom to choose to leave the European Union, the negotiations about what would happen between the sovereign state of the United Kingdom and the European Union would be done between the European Union and that country. The Republic of Ireland would therefore have a say in that, but it would not have an overall say on the terms of our exit. That is why the best solution is to remain in the European Union and to take advantage of its security, because we are better, safer and stronger in it.
Given that Brexit will threaten policing and security in the communities of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and in the communities of Ireland, will the Minister advise the Secretary of State to get out and campaign for the European arrest warrant to remain in place and for a remain vote on 23 June?
It is delightful to hear the Scottish National party talk about Great Britain from time to time. We will of course be delighted to ensure that we maintain the European arrest warrant and our membership of Europol by staying in the European Union, so I suggest that we all get out and campaign.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Q1. If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 8 June. 
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House, I will have further such meetings later today.
Emily Davison died on 8 June 1913. Yesterday, we commemorated women’s suffrage and the importance of votes for women—and women voting for women, of course. Thousands wanted to register to vote yesterday but were unable to due to massive demand. Will the PM update the House on what he is doing to ensure that everyone has the chance to register to vote and can do so in this vital vote for a generation?
First of all, let me join my hon. Friend in remembering what the suffragettes stood for, what they achieved and the fact that we achieved universal suffrage in this country. She raises voter registration and I am sure that the whole House will want to know what the situation is. Look, it is extremely welcome that so many people want to take part in this massive democratic exercise and in this vital decision for our country. Last night, there was record demand on the gov.uk website from people concerned that they might not be registered to vote in the referendum, which overloaded the system. I am clear that people should continue to register today. The Electoral Commission made a statement this morning, urging the Government to consider options that would effectively extend the deadline, which should include legislative options, and we are doing that and discussing it with the commission today. We are working urgently with it to do just that and to ensure that those who register today and those who registered last night will be able to vote in the EU referendum.
I think it would be appropriate if the House recognised and remembered the life of Muhammad Ali. He was not only the greatest in his chosen field, but someone whose courage and wit inspired so many. Indeed, I had the honour of meeting him in London in the 1980s and met his wife Lonnie with Doreen Lawrence only a couple of weeks ago. I think we should commend his bravery in facing Parkinson’s disease and his courageous campaigning on civil rights, anti-racism and peace. Truly, all of us have lost one of the greatest.
Yesterday, I met some workers from Sports Direct who were coming to Parliament to give evidence to the Select Committee on Business, Innovation and Skills about the company’s shocking behaviour, including non-payment of the minimum wage and a culture of intimidation and fear on top of the insecurity and exploitation of zero-hours contracts. Philip wrote to me this week with his concerns and said that the scandalous scourge of zero-hours contracts is blighting the lives of many already low-paid people. Will the Prime Minister do what some other European countries have done and ban exploitative zero-hours contracts here?
Let me join the Leader of the Opposition in paying tribute to the life of Muhammad Ali. He was a hero in the ring and an enormous role model outside the ring. What he did in terms of breaking down barriers and encouraging integration is something we should all celebrate. When standing at this Dispatch Box, I am sure that we all try to float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, although that is not always possible in the circumstances that we face.
On Sports Direct, I absolutely abhor the appalling practice of not paying the minimum wage, and this Government have done more than any previous Government to crack down on non-payment. We have levied almost 5,000 penalties since 2010. We continue to name and shame eligible employers when the investigation has been closed, something which did not happen before. Penalties for not paying the minimum wage are at a record high, and the total value of penalties last year was over 15 times bigger than in 2010. On top of our national living wage, we are going after unscrupulous employers and making sure that people get the deal that they deserve.
On the issue of zero-hours contracts, we legislated in the last Parliament to stop exclusive zero-hours contracts, but we followed the conclusions of our consultation, which said that we should not go further than that and that some people want to have the choice of those contracts.
The case of Sports Direct shows that Mike Ashley certainly is not Father Christmas. Indeed, he makes Scrooge look like a good employer. I think we should commend Unite the union and its members for exposing what went on. It shows that we must strengthen, not weaken, workers’ rights, particularly when criminal activity is involved.
However, the Government’s Employment Minister, the right hon. Member for Witham (Priti Patel), said that if we leave Europe,
“we could just halve the burdens of the EU social and employment legislation”.
Perhaps the Prime Minister can help us. Does she speak on behalf of the Government when she promises to reduce the “burdens”, as she describes them, of employment legislation, or on behalf of whom does she speak?
The Government are in favour of staying in a reformed European Union because we are stronger, safer and better off. One reason that many people will want to stay in the European Union is that they believe it provides an underpinning of rights for workers and employment rights. I would make the point, in addition, that we in this House have repeatedly chosen to go over and above those rights: we have had the right to request flexible working for all workers since 2014; we went well beyond the EU directive on maternity leave by giving 52 weeks’ maternity leave; we have provided shared parental leave; and we give eight days more annual leave to full-time workers than the EU working time directive. I believe that this modern, compassionate Conservative Government have an excellent record on these things, underpinned by our membership of the European Union.
If this is a modern, compassionate Conservative Government, as the Prime Minister describes them, why do they have an Employment Minister who wants to reduce the “burdens”, as she describes them, of employment legislation and make work less secure? I will quote one other person who has given some opinions on these matters:
“I can’t guarantee every person currently in work in their current job will keep their job.”
That was the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), who is the Justice Secretary. He seems equally relaxed about employment rights. The Prime Minister has an Employment Minister and a Justice Secretary who want to reduce workers’ protections, which they describe as a “burden”. Can’t he do something about that?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we are holding a referendum. That is what is happening. The Government have a very clear position, which is that we are stronger, safer and better off inside the European Union. That is the advice that we are giving to voters in our country, but of course there are Ministers in the Government who, in a personal capacity, are campaigning on another side of the argument. I do not agree with them—I do not agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said and I do not agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) said. I could not be clearer about that. The Government have a clear position.
On this issue, not only do the right hon. Gentleman and I agree—not only do the Conservative Government and the Labour party agree—but we have the support of the Liberal Democrats, the support of the Ulster Unionist party and the support of the Green party. This is one occasion when business, large and small, and the trade unions are on the same side. I think that we should celebrate that, and get out and campaign as hard as we can.
What I do celebrate is the work done by trade unions all across Europe that persuaded the European Union to bring in four weeks’ paid holiday, laws against sex discrimination, rights for part-time workers and rights for agency workers.
Two weeks ago, I raised with the Prime Minister the proposed amendment to the posting of workers directive, which would close a loophole that allows unscrupulous employers to exploit migrant workers and undercut wages here. Will he now reply to my question and confirm that he will argue in Europe for that amendment to close the loophole that allows this exploitation to go on?
As I have said, we support the current draft. We want to see this sorted out. We have been working with the Dutch Prime Minister who is leading this work, and we think that an amendment would be worth while. The current draft is good and we back it.
I am very pleased that the Prime Minister backs the amendment, but I hope that he backs it to ensure that it goes through. Another issue that I raised with him a couple of weeks ago is the anger over tax avoidance that exists all over this country and indeed all over the western world. I agree that we are more likely to make progress on tax avoidance inside the European Union than outside it, but his Members of the European Parliament have not been supporting country-by-country tax transparency, which would force companies to publish their tax payments in each country in which they operate. Will he now tell us when that will be supported by his MEPs and when it will go through so that we can close down just one of the many tax loopholes that currently exist?
I would argue that no Government have done more nationally to crack down on tax evasion and aggressive tax avoidance. I would also argue that no Government have done more internationally to bring this up the international agenda: I made it the centrepiece at the G8; we have driven change in the OECD; and we are now driving change in the European Union. Let me confirm that my MEPs do support country-by-country reporting, and they have said that over and again, and I am happy to repeat it again today.
I am really pleased that the Prime Minister’s MEPs support this transparency; we are all delighted about that. I just hope that they get round to voting for it when the opportunity comes up, because that would certainly help. He will be aware that Labour’s position is that we want to stay in the European Union to improve workers’ rights, tackle exploitation, and drive down tax evasion and tax avoidance, but we are concerned that those issues are not the priorities of members of his Government and his party, such as the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), and the right hon. Members for Surrey Heath and for Witham. They are talking about trying to destroy any of the social advances made within the European Union. Does he talk to them about that at any time? Do they speak for themselves or for him and his Government? If they speak for themselves, how are they Ministers at the same time?
Here I am trying to be so consensual. I am doing my best. I could mention that the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) was out yesterday spinning for Nigel Farage, but I do not want to play that game. I want to stress the unity of purpose that exists, particularly over the issue of tax evasion, because there is a serious point here. What we have in prospect in the European Union, in part because of British action, is the idea of saying that if large foreign multinationals want to invest in the European Union, they will have to report their country-by-country tax arrangements not just in Europe, but all over the world. That could drive a huge change in some of these very large companies in which there are great concerns. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and I can unite and say that this would be a good thing, as it shows that when Britain pushes an agenda in Europe it wins, and it wins for our citizens.
Q2. The Prime Minister has repeatedly stated that he secured changes to reform the EU. Will he now confirm that, on 23 June, the voters are not guaranteed any treaty change in EU law as no treaty change was achieved despite a promise to deliver one, and that an international agreement cannot change EU law? Finally, will he stop denigrating our great country, because it is a sign, if any were needed, that he is losing the argument? 
I know that my hon. Friend has very strong views on this issue, and I have very strong views on it, too. On the specific point that he raises, I am afraid that he is not correct. In the renegotiation, we secured two vital treaty changes: one on getting Britain out of ever-closer union; and the other on the protection for our currency. I do not accept for one minute that supporting Britain being a member of a reformed European Union is in any way doing our country down. If you love your country, you want it to be strong in the world. If you love your country, you want opportunities for your young people. If you love your country, you do not want to act in a way that could lead to its break-up. That is why what I want to see is not Nigel Farage’s little England, but a strong Britain in Europe.
Last week, thousands of dead from both sides in the battle of Jutland were remembered in commemorations in which the Prime Minister joined the First Minister, the Princess Royal and the President of Germany, along with thousands of other people, on Orkney to remember the tragedy of so many people losing their life. European co-operation emerged from both world wars as the best way to secure peace, so does the Prime Minister agree that we should never take peace and security for granted, and that that is a strong reason to remain in the European Union?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. There were very moving scenes as we stood on that cemetery ground, with the British and German frigates in the background together in Scapa Flow—a sight that I will not forget—as we commemorated and remembered how many people lost their lives. I want to be clear about this: the words “world war three” have never passed my lips, let me reassure everyone of that—[Interruption.] Of course, they have now; well spotted. But can we really take for granted the security and stability we enjoy today, when we know that our continent has been racked by so many conflicts in the past? Like all Conservatives, I would always give the greatest credit to NATO for keeping the peace, but I think that it has always been a Conservative view that the European Union has played its role as well.
This is not about world war three, but about the realities—the facts. There have been wars on the European continent, but outside the European Union; they have happened in the Balkans, in Ukraine and in the Caucasus. It is a fact that there has never been a single example of armed conflict between member states of the European Union. Will the Prime Minister, in the little time that is left ahead of the European referendum, take the time to stress the positive advantages of co-operation, peace and stability for us all, and not just of the single market or the rights we have as citizens? Peace and prosperity are an advantage to us all, and that is why we should remain in the European Union.
I very much take on what the right hon. Gentleman says. I think that the strongest argument for the Government’s position of wanting us to stay is that we would be better off, and that that market of 500 million people is essential for our businesses. The argument that I was just making—that we will be stronger in the world, in terms of getting things done for Britain and for our citizens—is important, but the argument that we are safer and more secure because the European Union is a means for dialogue between countries that were previously adversaries is one that I never forget. However frustrating it can get around that table with 27 other Prime Ministers and Presidents, I never forget that these are countries that were previously in conflict. Now, we talk, we discuss, we argue and we decide, and that is a far better way of doing things.
Q5. If my constituents in the coalfields of Nottinghamshire are to share in the economic success driven by this Government, they need access to employment via good-quality public services. Can the Prime Minister give me any assistance in my campaign to open up the Robin Hood line by extending it to the villages of Ollerton and Edwinstowe, so that we can get people on a train and to a job? 
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Quality infrastructure is essential for our economy, and I am pleased to say that following representations from my hon. Friend and others, the Department for Transport has revised the conditions for its new stations fund, so that projects such as the Robin Hood line that are in an earlier stage of development can benefit from Government money to kick-start them and get them going.
Q3. In 2003, the current Prime Minister and most of today’s Cabinet joined Tony Blair and his Cabinet in voting for the war in Iraq. This is historically factual and cannot be denied. Will not the judgment of Chilcot be discredited if the report fails to recognise that the then Prime Minister honestly and genuinely believed that his actions, given the information available, were the right thing to do at the time? 
What I say to the right hon. Lady—I remember the powerful speeches she made at the time and all the concerns she had for people in Iraq, particularly the Kurds—is that we should wait for the Chilcot report and for what it has to say. I have absolutely no idea what is in it, but I do know that its publication is coming quite soon.
Q10. The European Union recently admitted that it now has a black hole in its finances of €24.7 billion—about £19 billion. Eighteen months ago my right hon. Friend declared that he would not pay the EU a £1.7 billion surcharge—effectively a fine on British taxpayers for growing our economy—yet he was later forced to pay up. What reassurance can he give the House that hard-working British taxpayers will not be forced to pour money into that EU black hole if our nation votes to remain in the European Union? Does he, like me, accept that our only option to halt such payments is for our constituents to vote to leave the EU on 23 June? 
The reassurance that I can give my hon. Friend is that we fixed the European budget for a seven-year period between 2014 and 2020, and we fixed a total for that budget that was lower than for the previous seven-year period, which means that European budgets are going to go down, not up. That cannot be changed. This is a very important point. That overall ceiling of spending is determined by all 28 Prime Ministers and Presidents. There is a veto over changing it, just as there is a veto over the British rebate. The only person who can give up the British rebate is the British Prime Minister, and as long as I am Prime Minister there is absolutely no prospect of that happening. As my hon. Friend ended his question with a remark, I will end my answer with a remark: there is no expert saying that we would make a saving from leaving the EU. The only black hole would be in our public finances, because we would have a smaller economy and lower tax receipts, so we would either have to cut spending or put up taxes to make up for that fact.
Q4. It is time that buses, like trains, were required to provide audiovisual information. This would benefit not just those who are blind or deaf, but many general users. I have written to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), on this subject. Will the Prime Minister commit his Government to signing up to an amendment to the Bus Services Bill that would allow such a measure to be implemented in order to provide accessibility for all? 
I will look closely at what the hon. Gentleman says. I think I am right in saying that the Bus Services Bill is a devolved matter, so it affects issues in England rather than in Scotland, but let me look carefully at what he says, because we want to make sure that disabled people can properly use our bus services.
Q11. My right hon. Friend will be aware that it is five years since the announcement by Pfizer in Sandwich that it would scale down operations. Since then, with enterprise zone status, there has been a true renaissance of high-tech businesses on the site, and employment levels are now nearly up to where they were previously. My right hon. Friend has previously promised a trip to South Thanet. May I invite him once more to see on site the success of Discovery Park in my constituency? 
I am delighted to answer that offer and say yes, I would like to go. I remember very well that it was early in the 2010 Parliament when Pfizer made that decision. There were real concerns that it would lead to an exit of jobs and investment from my hon. Friend’s constituency. I want to pay tribute to David Willetts who, as Minister of State for Universities and Science at the time, did a great job working with others, including with the local MP, to get businesses to locate in the constituency, and to show that there is a very strong pharmaceutical and life sciences industry in our country, providing the jobs that we need.
Q6. With industrialists such as GlaxoSmithKline and Hitachi warning that if we left the EU, jobs would be lost, the Brexit economist Patrick Minford has revealed that under his side’s strategy, manufacturing would be mostly eliminated. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling on the Brexit leaders to say how many other people’s jobs they would sacrifice on the altar of their own political ambitions? 
The hon. Lady makes an important point, which is that one of the reasons why international companies such as Hitachi invest in Britain—of course, we also have excellent labour relations, the English language, and a very hard-working workforce and great engineers—is that we are members of the single market. I thought that what the head of Hitachi said this week about wanting us to be the European headquarters, and to manufacture those trains in the north-east and sell them all over Europe, and how that might not be possible if we were to leave, was an incredibly powerful statement. In my clear view, jobs come first, and if people want to vote for jobs, they should vote for remain on 23 June.
Q14. Speaking at many universities, colleges and schools across England, and at events organised by Universities UK, University Alliance and the Russell Group, I have been struck by young people’s strong interest in remaining in the European Union. Does the Prime Minister agree that Britain should take a firm lead in the European Union to promote the interests of young people’s careers and research, and their opportunities in the future more generally? 
I think our universities have been pretty much unanimous in recommending that we vote to remain in the EU. I think that is partly because of the opportunities young people will have from being part of a single market of 500 million people, but also because our universities do very well out of research funding that helps to create the businesses and jobs of the future. We contribute about 11% of the EU research budget, but receive about 16% of the allocated funding. Staying in Europe is good for students’ opportunities, good for young people’s opportunities and good for our science base.
Q7. Yesterday in the Defence Committee, the former First Sea Lord, Admiral Lord West, commented that the Ministry of Defence had effectively run out of money for shipbuilding. Given reports that another Russian submarine has had to be escorted out of UK waters overnight, does the Prime Minister share my concerns that the delays to beginning work on new frigates at the Clyde shipyards are causing real problems? Does he agree that it is essential that the money is allocated to deliver this programme in full and on schedule? 
It is certainly not the case that this country has in any way run out of money, or run out of ambition, when it comes to shipbuilding. We are currently building the two largest ships the Royal Navy has ever had. We will shortly be commissioning the Type 26 programme, as well as the offshore patrol vessels. The point I would make to the hon. Gentleman is that there is only one way we could threaten shipbuilding on the Clyde, and that is by pulling out of the United Kingdom and seeing jobs decimated as a result.
The beauty of a referendum is that every voter has an equal voice, every vote carries equal weight, and Members of Parliament have no moral or political superiority over anybody else. Does my right hon. Friend accept that the referendum is not a consultation but an instruction to Parliament from the British people? Is it not therefore incumbent on all of us to accept in advance that remain would mean remain and leave would mean leave, and that any attempt to short-change or distort the verdict of the British people would be a democratic outrage?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: every vote counts the same. We have asked the British people for their opinion, and we should treat their decision as an instruction to deliver. I know many people would like me to be a bit more nuanced in what I think, and to say there are two options that both have some merits and that it is a balanced decision. That might have made my life easier, but the problem is that I do not believe it. I very strongly believe that we are better off if we stay in. That is why the Government and I are saying so clearly to the British people: better off, stronger, safer. But in the end, it is the British people’s decision.
Q8. Only last week, the Prime Minister was rightly extolling the virtues of the EU as a means of tackling pollution, yet over recent months the UK Government have led efforts to water down a key EU directive aimed at reducing the number of people who die every year from breathing toxic air. Can he tell us why? 
What we are doing in our own country is making sure that we improve our air quality, and that we go for these clean air zones. We have seen a major reduction in particulates in the air over the past few years, and we are going to continue doing just that.
What the Prime Minister said today on Europe is right: we have to go and campaign. I remember, Mr Speaker, what you said yesterday about notifying Members if one is going to visit their constituency, so may I say to the Prime Minister that a group of global-looking leave campaigners will be descending on Witney at lunch time this Sunday? I will be there. Will the Prime Minister be able to join us? Given what he has just said, will he confirm that if the country votes to leave, he will be able to stay on as Prime Minister and negotiate the exit?
First, I am very sorry that I will not be able to meet my hon. Friend—I am making an appearance on the “Andrew Marr” programme on Sunday—but I would recommend that he goes to The Fleece pub in Witney and spends as much time and as much money as he can there, rather than on anything else.
Q9. Will we have a decision on the Davies report on airport expansion by the time the House rises this summer, and does the Prime Minister stand by his words: “No ifs, no buts, no third runway at Heathrow”? 
I absolutely stand by what I said: that we will have a decision about this in the summer, and we do need to decide.
Next week, the annual national parliamentary prayer breakfast will take place in Westminster Hall, at which 600 community and faith leaders and over 100 MPs will gather. Yet also this week, we hear of a Christian union being banned from holding prayer and Bible study meetings, purportedly on the grounds of the Government’s anti-terrorism Prevent strategy. Does the Prime Minister agree that such action was never the purpose of a strategy intended to address terrorism and extremism?
Of course what my hon. Friend says is right. I am very sorry I will not be able to attend the prayer breakfast, because I know it is a very good event, and it brings a lot of people together and means a lot to Christians around our country. On the point she makes about the Prevent duty being misused, I have not heard of that exact example, but it is clearly ludicrous. People do need to exercise some common sense in making these judgments, because it is quite clear that that is not what was intended.
Q12. Every day, around 6,000 people—many of them children—take on new caring responsibilities, providing unpaid care for an older or disabled family member or friend, yet many carers tell me they feel abandoned by everyone, including the Government. In this Carers Week, will the Prime Minister pledge that his Government will do much better for the 9,500 carers in my constituency, and the 6.5 million carers across the country? 
I certainly take this opportunity to pay tribute to carers across our country for the selfless work they do, for the immense amount of money that they save taxpayers every year through what they do, but, above all, for the love and commitment that they give to the people they are caring for. What we have done is try to help by, for instance, increasing the number of carers’ breaks, because many carers will say that the one thing they need to go on caring is an occasional break and time away from their caring responsibilities. We should continue to work on all those things to help our carers.
The largest single source of employment and wealth in my constituency is the London-based financial services market. Does the Prime Minister agree that the opportunity to continue trading freely in a single market in financial services of 500 million people and a completed capital markets union is an unparalleled and optimistic opportunity for my constituents, and one that no sensible businessman would ever turn his back on?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Here, it really is worth understanding exactly what this single market means: it means that a financial services company based in the UK effectively has a passport to trade in 27 other EU countries. If we are to leave, and if we leave the single market, we lose that passport right, so, by definition, many of the firms would have to relocate at least some of their staff to another European Union country. HSBC has said it would have to scrap 1,000 jobs. JPMorgan said it would have to scrap 4,000 jobs. Lloyd’s came out and said that many jobs in insurance would be under threat. This is a concrete example of why the single market matters. I would make the point—because this does not just affect my hon. Friend’s constituency—that two thirds of the jobs in financial services are outside London, and this accounts for 7% of our economy, so when experts warn of effects on jobs, growth and livelihoods in our country, this is a classic example of why they are right to make that case.
Q13. Does the Prime Minister agree that a vote to leave on 23 June would be a hammer blow for the British steel industry? Will he agree to meet me to discuss a number of the decisions being made in the context of the Tata sale process—imminent decisions that will have a huge impact on thousands of jobs in my constituency and right across the country? 
I am working very closely with the hon. Gentleman, as is my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary, to help do everything we can to secure a future for Tata Steel. The sales process is progressing, and that is encouraging. I would say that, yes, for steel, we are better off inside the European Union, because together as 28 countries, we are far better able to stand up to the Chinese or, indeed, the Americans over dumped steel. Where we put in place those dumping tariffs, you can see 95%, 98%, and 99% reductions in the quantity of Chinese steel in those categories being imported into the EU. We still face a very difficult situation—there is still massive overcapacity —but we are definitely, for the steel industry, better off as part of this organisation, fighting for British steelworkers’ jobs.
Will the Prime Minister address an issue that the remain camp has so far fudged? Our present immigration policy, in all truthfulness, cannot control numbers coming in from the EU to the benefit of our public services, and also actually discriminates against the rest of the world outside the EU.
Having spent my evening yesterday with Mr Farage—or Farridge, as I like to call him—I am confused about what the leave camp actually wants when it comes to immigration. I thought it wanted less immigration, but now it seems to want more immigration from outside the EU into our country. My view is that we should restrict welfare in the way that we have negotiated, so that people have to come and work here for four years before they get full access to our welfare system—no more “something for nothing”; people pay in before they get out—and then we should focus on proper controls on migration from outside the EU, on which we have made some progress over recent years and can do some more. That is the right answer. As for the alternative of an Australian points system, if we look at Australia, it has twice as much immigration per head as we have here in the UK. That is not the right answer for Britain.
Q15. As he reaches the end of his time in office, President Obama has reflected that his worst mistake was the catastrophe in Libya. What is the Prime Minister’s worst mistake in his time in office? 
The time to reflect on your mistakes is clearly when you are close to the end of your time in office, so that does not apply. [Interruption.]
I am sure the hon. Lady is delighted to receive such a tumultuous cheer.
Last week I was delighted to welcome my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to Faversham in my constituency to visit our largest local employer, Shepherd Neame. There, we heard that having a strong and stable economy is vital for the ongoing success of Britain’s oldest brewery. Does he agree that leaving the European Union would put in jeopardy that strong economy, and with it British businesses, British jobs, and British livelihoods?
My hon. Friend is right. Shepherd Neame, which is the oldest brewery in the country, could not have been clearer about wanting to stay in a reformed European Union, because it wants a strong and successful economy, it wants to be part of a single market, and it recognises that that is in our interests. She and I very much enjoyed the pint of Spitfire we had at about 10.30 in the morning—the things we have to do to win this argument! But we have an absolute commitment to carry it through.
Given the number of people who will be travelling from all parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, I am sure, to the Euros next week—[Interruption.] We welcome everybody, and given Leicester’s success in the premiership, Northern Ireland, at 150:1, is almost certain to win. Will the Prime Minister ensure that given the number of visitors, the security threats and all the rest of it, the British embassy and consular staff are fully geared up, resourced and staffed to deal with the problems that will undoubtedly arise?
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. I am sure that this is one occasion when the whole House will want all the home nations to stay in Europe for as long as possible. [Interruption.] Come on now. I am going to be watching; our first game is England-Russia, and I will be watching very carefully to check that we get very strong support.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point, which is that this is a very big security undertaking. Half a million people are planning to leave the United Kingdom to go to this tournament. We have set out very clear travel advice, because people do need to know that obviously there is a significant terrorist threat in France today, and there is a potential threat to this tournament. We have set out very clearly that the threat level in France is critical and the threat level for the tournament is severe, and people need to know that. The French security operation is enormous— 77,000 police and gendarmes, 10,000 military personnel, and 13,000 security guards. We are providing additional counter-terrorism and public order support to the French, including deployment of additional police on trains to France and more UK Border Force outbound checks. We are also helping with sniffer dogs and in any other areas that the French ask us to.
We all want to see an absolutely great celebration of European football. I wish all the home nations well. It is brilliant that Northern Ireland has made it to this tournament, and I know we all—[Interruption.] And of course Wales, and of course England. I look forward, in the breaks in the campaign, to watching some fantastic football.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make a statement on the problems with the gov.uk voter registration website just before the deadline for voter registration for the EU referendum.
I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the Government’s position. Whatever your view, Mr Speaker, or anyone else’s on the question on the ballot paper on 23 June, the EU referendum is a very important moment in our democracy. Over the past three months, 4.5 million people have applied to register to vote. Very high levels of voter registration have been successfully handled over the past month by the systems, and in the last week alone more than a million people have applied. Yesterday, 525,000 people successfully completed their application. That is a record. At its peak yesterday, the website was handling three times the volume of applications at the previous record peak, which was just before the general election last year.
My strong view, and the view of the Government, is that anyone who is eligible should be able to register to vote in the EU referendum. Unfortunately, because of the unprecedented demand, there were problems with the website from 10.15 pm last night. To give the House a sense of the scale of the demand, the peak before the 2015 general election was 74,000 applications per hour. Last night, the system processed 214,000 per hour at its peak before it crashed. Many who applied to register after 10.15 pm were successful, but many were not. The problems with the website were resolved around the deadline at midnight.
We are urgently looking at all options and talking to the Electoral Commission about how we can extend the deadline for applying to register to vote in the EU referendum. The website is now open and working, and we strongly encourage people to register to vote online. Anyone who has already registered does not need to submit a fresh application. We are also offering extra resources to electoral registration officers to cover any additional administrative costs.
A huge amount of work has gone into encouraging people to register to vote in a timely fashion. We began the registration drive ahead of the May elections. From the middle of April we began in earnest to promote registration. Departments, local authorities and civil society organisations have all helped to boost voter registration. I want to pay tribute to the work of all of them—everyone from Idris Elba to Emma Watson, and all others who have been involved. We are targeting under-registered groups, and consistently high numbers have registered throughout the past few weeks. It is in all our interests to ensure that as many people as possible are able to vote on 23 June at one of the most important moments in our democracy in a generation.
Last night, tens of thousands of people trying to exercise their democratic right to register to vote were told, “The computer says no.” I welcome the announcement today that people should continue to register to vote and that their applications will be valid. However, we are no clearer about exactly how the Government plan to make this happen and what the new deadline for registration is.
I want to offer the Government Labour’s complete support across both Houses to do whatever it takes to get through any necessary legislation. This should be done today. What legislative options are open to the Government, and is one of the options being considered a statutory instrument, which could be quickly and efficiently scrutinised today? What is the new deadline to register to vote? People need complete clarity on how long they now have left, and it needs to be well advertised. Last night’s chaos was totally unacceptable. What stress testing was done on the website in advance, and what provisions were made for the predictable rise in traffic?
What will be done about postal votes, given that the deadline for applications is 5 pm today but is available only to those who are on the register? Will the Minister confirm that this will also be extended? People would never expect to be turned away from a polling station despite being in the queue before the close of the polls. Those queuing up online last night must not be turned away. We need clear answers on how they can still make their voices heard.
First, I am grateful to the hon. Lady for Labour’s clear and unambiguous support for action—if necessary, legislative action—to put this right. The support of the Labour party in both Houses will be important if we need to get through emergency legislation. We are looking at legislative options, including secondary legislation, and I look forward to taking up such an option. We need to make sure that we get the details of any emergency legislation exactly right, since we will have to pass it at pace.
On the deadline that the hon. Lady mentioned, people should register to vote now. Those registrations will be captured by the system. We then have the legal question of whether captured applications can be eligible for 23 June, and that is the issue that we might have to deal with in legislation. [Interruption.] Labour Members are saying from a sedentary position, “What is the deadline?” I am absolutely clear: people should register now—today—and we will bring out further information as and when we can.
We did of course undertake stress tests, which the hon. Lady raised. We tested a significantly higher level of interest and of applications than at the general election last year, which is the best comparator, but, as I have said, the level of interest was significantly higher than the peak then and, because of the exceptional demand, the website crashed. Ultimately, the problem was born out of the fact that thousands and thousands—hundreds of thousands—of people want to vote, and the interest that that shows in expressing their democratic wishes is to be recommended.
May I first commend the Government and my right hon. Friend for so successfully engaging millions of people that they want to register and vote in this referendum? That is definitely a good thing. I am afraid the problems he has encountered are born out of the fact that the Government and the Electoral Commission were ill prepared for the surge of registrations. The Government spent millions of pounds on promoting registration, so they should have been prepared.
This issue now arises: there is a cut-off in our legislation because the register has to be finalised and published six days before the date of the poll for the referendum—there have to be five days remaining so that any name on the register can be challenged during the first five days it is on the register—which leaves very little time for anything like legislation.
May I advise the Minister that it is probably legal to keep the site open for a short period—a few hours, to capture those who did not have the opportunity to register yesterday—but any idea of rewriting the rules in any substantial way would be complete madness and make this country look like an absolute shambles in the run-up to the referendum, which is such an important decision? Will he bear those things in mind, or risk judicial review of the result?
Order. There is no entitlement in these matters for the Chair of a Select Committee to deliver an oration, and a short question is required. I have been mildly indulgent of the hon. Gentleman, because these are exceptional circumstances, but if people could be pithy from now on that would help.
We prepared extensively for a peak in registrations, but the extent of interest in registering was unprecedented. My hon. Friend mentioned the period for which registrations may be valid in future in any legislative measure that we bring forward. He suggested that that should be for a short period, and I agree. That is to rectify the problem of people not being able to vote last night, so we are likely to bring forward proposals with that short period in mind.
I do not think that we can understate the seriousness of the great catastrophe that has happened. If we consult the people of this country on such an important decision for the first time in 40 years, and deny tens of thousands of our citizens the ability to participate, that will tarnish and call into question the entire process. It is not enough to come to the House and say that registration is open and it is okay for people to continue to register; we need an assurance that people who register today and from now on will be able to vote on 23 June. I had hoped that the Minister would have come here today not just to say that there might be a need for legislation. We want to see it! The Government should bring forward the emergency measures, and they will have the support of the SNP.
Again, I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s support. On the question of bringing forward legislation, we are still in discussions with the Electoral Commission. It has stated that it would support a legislative approach, which I warmly welcome. It is important to remember that the unprecedented success of our registration drive led to the amount of people trying to register late last night, which caused the technical problems.
At 9 o’clock last night the Prime Minister debated with the leave side for an hour, which caused a surge at 10 o’clock in people wanting to vote. Extending the registration period for a short time would be far better than trying to bring through rushed legislation. Give it a few hours today, give people notice of it, and get on with it.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for a short extension, but any extension requires legislative action. That is our understanding of the law, as well as that of the Electoral Commission. Doing exactly what she proposes would require legislation.
Without any doubt this is an emergency. We are talking about a few hours of time being made available. If, for instance, the Opposition were prepared to allocate one half of their Opposition-day debate today, would the Minister guarantee that that half-day would be given back?
I am sure that those on the Opposition Front Bench are grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s kind offer. For people’s registrations to allow them to vote on 23 June, we would need to legislate. If that legislation takes place tomorrow, registrations made today will be valid for the vote on 23 June. Therefore, the clear message from the Prime Minister, and from me, is that if people have not been able to register to vote, they should do so now. It is incumbent on all Members of the House to continue to state that if people want to vote in the referendum on 23 June and they are not yet registered, they should register now.
I congratulate the Minister on the flexibility that he and the Government are showing, and I am pleased that so many people want to register, particularly young people who, as we know, are by and large very enthusiastic about remaining in the EU. It is clear that a short final deadline should not now be announced, in case the same thing happens again. The system must be able to cope with what might be another surge, and I suspect that a deadline of a few hours would be ill-advised.
As my right hon. Friend will imagine, we are putting in place measures to ensure that the system has yet more capacity, in case there is further high interest because of the news about the potential extension that we and the Electoral Commission want. On the deadline, the Chair of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee set out an important practical consideration, which is that from the closure of registration for the referendum, electoral registration officers must ensure that the electoral roll is correct, and it is important that there is enough time for that to happen. That is why any extension would be for a short time, rather than for a long time.
The right hon. Gentleman is smiling benevolently at me, but I would happily call him anyway.
In 2014, we achieved 98% registration in Scotland and an 85% turnout, with no collapse of a website or registration, and no difficulty at the polling stations. However, we were not starting from a position where hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens had been effectively disfranchised by the process of individual registration and the lack of electoral canvass. The Government were not worried about that, because it mostly involved young people whom they did not think would vote for them anyway. Now the Minister is concerned, and he is standing in this House, hoist by his own gerrymandered petard.
It is a shame to bring a note of discord to what was otherwise a reasonably consensual discussion. If it were not for our online voter registration system, people would not be able to vote up to a midnight deadline at all. The website collapsed because of the success of online registration, and the huge demand for participation in this incredibly important referendum. The United Kingdom is much, much larger than just Scotland, and the scale of the challenge is more significant. That is why we are taking action to ensure that registration means that people can vote on 23 June.
I am proud to have been the Minister who introduced online registration, which I think has been a great step forward in our democracy. I fundamentally disagree with the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), who thinks that individual electoral registration is problematic, because I think that it is the right thing to do in our democracy. I chair the all-party group on democratic participation, and I urge the Minister and the House to consider some of the recommendations that we have recently brought forward to improve the state of the registers. It is important that as many people as possible are registered to vote, and I commend the Minister’s calm approach to the situation this morning.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and she is right to say that there is no link between IER and last night’s registration difficulties on the website. I will study her recommendations with great interest, and I understand that she will soon meet the Minister responsible for constitutional affairs to discuss the matter.
It would be an absolute scandal if people who tried to register before the deadline were deprived of a vote in what is the most important vote in any of our lifetimes. Will the Minister pull out all the stops until the last possible moment to ensure that people can vote? Will he also address the concern raised by my constituents who live and work abroad, and who have heard that there are problems with processing the huge numbers of postal and proxy votes that are coming back in at local level, and ensure that those votes are counted?
There are very high numbers of registrations for postal votes, and indeed of registrations by post as opposed to through the website. We are dealing with all those issues. The right hon. Gentleman asks me to pull out all the stops; believe me, we are.
Even before the failure of the electronic system we heard that thousands of polling cards had been sent inappropriately to people who do not qualify to vote. Given the great strain on the system caused by the surge, will the Minister explain exactly how that sort of mistake will not be made again?
That was an identified software fault, which has now been fixed. The Electoral Commission brought it to the public’s attention. It has been addressed and lessons have been learned.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, but I would like a wee bit more clarity on how all this is going to work, as that is the important issue. Last week I had a meeting with the electoral officer in my constituency, who informed me that demand for postal votes has been at unprecedented levels—she has never seen anything like it in her life—and that they were trying to do the processing as quickly as possible. Postal vote applications have been delayed, or sent in but not returned. Any delays in processing cannot be tolerated. What is being done to help those who have applied but whose applications have not been processed?
Work has been done to address the challenge of the incredibly high interest in postal voting, and resources are available to deal with those issues and make sure that everyone has the democratic right to vote. Ultimately, this is about making sure that everyone who is eligible and wants to has the opportunity to register to participate in this great festival of democracy.
It is very important that people have the opportunity to register to vote, but this issue has consequences not just for the referendum but for other elections. There are 4.5 million new people on the register; has the Minister thought about the consequences of that for the Boundary Commission’s drawing up of constituencies, as it will be doing so on numbers that are now completely wrong?
The Boundary Commission is continuing its work based on the drop-dead date agreed by this House. The two issues are essentially separate.
I am ambitious for my country, which is why, earlier today, I voted by post to remain. Everyone else who wants to do so should be able to. What estimate has the Minister made of the number of people who were able to register after 10.15 pm last night and, by extrapolation, the number who were not?
I welcome support from the right hon. Gentleman and the Liberal Democrat Benches. I hope that would be the case in the House of Lords, should legislation come forward.
The right hon. Gentleman is nodding, so I am delighted that there will be that Lib Dem support. The question he asked is about a very important matter, which we will take into consideration.
The Minister is clearly putting a great deal of energy into ironing out this particular glitch, but he needs to be seen to be fair to both sides, given the likely closeness of the result on 23 June. How much energy is he therefore applying to quantifying the number of non-eligible EU nationals who have been sent postal votes? Clearly, after the event some in the leave camp may call things into question if we have not quantified what correspondence was sent out in error.
We know that that number is less than 5,000, according to the Electoral Commission, and the problem has been fixed. By contrast, it will be impossible to know the total number of people—asked for by the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake)—who between 10.15 pm and midnight last night tried to register but did not succeed, because some people tried again and succeeded. That is why seeing what we can do to extend the deadline—which seems to have broad support across the House—is the right way forward.
I am really proud that work by my former employer HOPE not hate has led to so many people registering to vote in the past two weeks. Will the Minister answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) about what will happen to the postal vote deadline?
There are no proposals to change the postal vote deadline. We want to make sure that we deal with the registration deadline appropriately. That might mean legislation. If that legislation is brought forward we will explain it in full to the House.
I welcome the news that thousands want to register for the referendum, and the extension will encourage even more people to do so. However, having seen at first hand long-standing failures of IT infrastructure such as the NHS connecting for health programme, it was little surprise to me that the IT infrastructure was not able to keep up with the volume of registrations. What lessons will be learned from this latest episode, and how will the Cabinet Office provide solutions for the age-old problem of IT infrastructure as it looks to pursue a new Bill on data later in this Parliament?
Believe you me, Mr Speaker, there will be a lessons learned exercise. Today, we are concentrating on making sure that everyone who wants to participate in the EU referendum and is eligible to do so can vote.
Clearly we all want as many people as possible to take up the franchise and vote. The news that more than 4 million people registered for the referendum in the spring is not a shock, because we raised that possibility with the Leader of the House and others in the aftermath of debates on the boundary review. Surely the fact that those 4.5 million people registered to vote in the spring calls into question the legitimacy of the foundation data upon which the boundary review is to be conducted.
I do not think that is the case. The House decided on the date for the work of the boundary review to start. It is very important that it begins, because we need to make sure that that independent review can come to its conclusions in good time.
Young people are disproportionately likely to be unregistered to vote. May I urge the Minister not only to extend the deadline as far as possible but, once that is done, to promote it as clearly as possible in places where young people are most likely to be, such as Facebook and other social media?
There has been a huge amount of support and communication, both on social media and more broadly, from the wide array of people I referred to in my statement. I encourage all those who have spent the past few days explaining to people that they have to register to vote, to get out there and encourage people to register to vote now—today—knowing that we are doing all that we can to make sure that those registrations will allow people to vote on 23 June. Huge numbers of people have been out there on social media doing that already, so I say to them: get out there again now and spread the word.
The Minister must surely accept that the surge in applications to vote reflects not just the interest in the referendum but the number of people who have, in effect, been disfranchised. Why is he content for the boundary review to go ahead on false figures, and why will he not make a commitment to the House today that the Boundary Commission will work on accurate figures rather than the dodgy statistics that we have seen previously?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman has got hold of the wrong end of the stick. The boundary review has to operate from an electoral roll on an agreed date. That date was agreed by this House. In the past, the review operated on a 10-year cycle, and the electoral roll was therefore 10 years out of date by the time it was reviewed. We are now moving to five-year cycles, so we have brought in more frequent use of electoral roll data by the boundary review. If we could not have a drop-dead date we could not have a boundary review at all.
The fact that someone has a national insurance number does not of itself establish that they are eligible to vote in the referendum. Will my right hon. Friend explain what checks are being done to verify that everyone who applies is genuinely able to vote in the referendum?
That is an incredibly important question. The eligibility requirements were debated extensively in this House. After someone applies to register online, the application is not taken at face value but is checked against Government data to make sure that that person meets the eligibility rules set by this House. That is one reason why there needs to be time between the deadline and polling day—to make sure that exactly the concerns that my hon. Friend raises are met.
The Minister keeps saying that yesterday’s significantly higher numbers were unprecedented. There were 525,000 applications yesterday and 485,000 on deadline day in 2015. Why then was the system not prepared and able to cope, and is it not now time for automatic registration?
The spike was much bigger than the hon. Lady’s figures, which are accurate for the whole day, I suggest, because there was an intense spike after 9 pm. The question for the system is how many people are trying to apply at once, and that figure was three times higher than in the peak before the 2015 general election.
The Minister is making a bad situation worse by refusing to give a clear answer on the deadline for registration. I want to ask him about the agile technologies that form the basis of online registration, and which were chosen for their very scalability when properly implemented and resourced. These are the same technologies as form the basis of other digital services, such as universal credit and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which might also be subject to unprecedented but entirely predictable surges. Will he commit, therefore, to laying before the House a detailed report on why a scalable technology was unable to deal with a predictable surge in demand?
The hon. Lady asks a reasonable question, which we will be looking at in the lessons learned exercise. I would pick her up on one point, though. On the issue of clarity around what people should do now, it is incumbent on all of us to get out there and say that people should register now. We will come forward with legislation, should we choose to—[Laughter.] I think the House can gather that it is highly likely. Should we choose to, we will come forward with legislation setting out the deadline, but what matters right now is that people get on the website, which is currently working, and register to vote. Let that message go out loud and clear.
What guidance would the Minister give to those who want to vote by post? I am still not clear what is happening with the 5 pm deadline this evening. If someone registers today and is informed tomorrow that they can vote, but only by post, will the Government not be open to judicial challenge?
No; the two issues are separate. If someone wants to register, or applied to register yesterday, but is not available to vote on 23 June, a postal vote could not be organised in time, but they can still vote by proxy. That opportunity is available, so that they can express their democratic wish.
The House has heard a “carry on” registration message from the Minister and the Prime Minister. Should people in Northern Ireland listen, given that online registration is not available there? There were separate difficulties in Northern Ireland arising from strike action over proposals to centralise electoral office services that affected those offices yesterday and last week.
This is an incredibly important concern in Northern Ireland, and any legislation will be absolutely clear about the position, which we will set out as soon as we can.
What additional support and help will the Minister give to local authorities unexpectedly having to undertake a great deal of verification work?
We have made it clear that if needed, we will make resources available, to a reasonable extent, to electoral registration offices to ensure that everyone can vote who wants to and is eligible.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), I remember the glorious sunny day in September 2014 when hundreds of people queued up outside their local authority offices to hand in their voter registration forms. Were any lessons learned from the surge before the Scottish independence referendum and the 2015 general election? Will the Minister confirm whether there is now capacity to deal with any further surge when the deadline is finally announced? As the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) hinted at, will he also confirm that we are talking about online registration and that the paper registration deadline has passed?
We are absolutely working to ensure capacity to deal with any further surge, but I repeat that last night’s level of demand in such a short period was unprecedented, which is why we had the problems we did.
It is absolutely right that anybody who last night wanted to but could not register to vote be given the opportunity to do so, but given that the referendum result might be close, what legalities surround an extension of the deadline, and what advice has the Minister taken in case a close result, whether a yes or a no vote, is challenged legally?
We are consulting and working closely with the Electoral Commission and lawyers to make sure that anything we bring forward is watertight. We all want the referendum to take place on 23 June, and we all want everyone who wants to and is eligible to vote to be able to do so.
Clarity is key. When is the deadline for bringing forward legislation, and is there any reason why it cannot be done today?
We want to get the legislation exactly right to ensure that the referendum takes place on an entirely legal and unchallengeable basis, as I am sure the hon. Lady will accept, which is why we are being careful to get the details exactly right.
Following on from the question by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the industrial action in Northern Ireland, has further provision been made to allow people to register, including for a postal or proxy vote? The proposed closure of rural offices in Northern Ireland will only heighten the problem in future years.
As I said to the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), this is an incredibly important matter in Northern Ireland. We are considering the options right now, and I would welcome the input of the hon. Gentleman and other Northern Ireland Members.
It appears that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been given a blank cheque from all parties in the House for any legislation tomorrow, but we still need the certainty of a date from when registration will not entitle someone to vote. If the message goes out today that if people keep on registering they will be able to vote, it will lead to problems either tomorrow or towards the weekend. Will the Minister indicate that if someone does not register by the end of today, their vote will not count on 23 June?
We will make that clear when the legislation, should there be any, is brought forward. My answer is absolutely precise: let us encourage people to register now. We are doing all we can to ensure that people who register now can vote on 23 June.
I would like to echo the comments of the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith). The “Missing Millions” report made many recommendations, including on automatic registration. May we have a commitment today that following this example of poor practice and failure, automatic registration proposals will be brought before the House?
We will look into the use of alternative sources of data, but we are not yet persuaded on the case for automatic registration. Most importantly, right now we are concentrating on ensuring that people who want to and are eligible to vote will be able to.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman’s point of order arises, I believe, directly out of the matters of which the House has just treated, and therefore it is proper to take it now.
I am grateful, Mr Speaker. The Minister has said he thinks that emergency legislation will be necessary if we are to deal with the problem now facing us. I think the whole House has said it wants the matter dealt with, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) made clear, the Opposition want to be as helpful as possible. It would be difficult to bring forward legislation and carry it through today. If it is primary legislation, it would have to come to the Floor of the House, so I presume the earliest would be tomorrow. If it is secondary legislation, it would be difficult because a Committee would have to be set up before Monday. It would obviously be better to deal with it tomorrow. My mere suggestion is that if the Leader of the House could come to us later today with a business statement to make it clear what will happen tomorrow, it would be in the best interests of the House and voters, as well as the other House, which will have to deal with the legislation as well.
I am in the happy position of agreeing with the hon. Gentleman. It is certainly open to the Government to bring forward business tomorrow, and I have a sense that that would be widely anticipated and enthusiastically supported in the House. To have some advance indication from the Government that that is their intention would be useful, and a supplementary business statement would be the ordinary, though not the only, way of providing the information.
The Minister is all agog and in a state of great excitement. I wish him to feel satisfied before he pops.
Well, crikey, Mr Speaker. As I have made clear, it is likely that legislation will be needed, and I warmly welcome what the shadow Leader of the House said just now. We will work with him and through the usual channels to make sure that this is done as effectively as possible. I will take away the point about whether we should have a business statement today in order to facilitate that.
I know that discussions will take place between the usual channels behind the scenes. Given the normal courtesy of the Leader of the House, I would certainly expect to be kept apprised of the situation as the afternoon and events unfold.
I will take further points of order if they appertain to this matter. If they are on unrelated matters, they should come after the Standing Order No. 24 application. It is unrelated, so I save up the hon. Member for Stone (Sir William Cash)—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman cannot have a commitment that is more important than the Chamber. He is the ultimate parliamentarian. We shall hear from him soon, and I am becoming increasingly excited about the prospect of doing so.
The Minister says “Me, too”, but I do not know whether he will feel the same way at the end of the hon. Gentleman’s point of order. That remains to be seen.
In a moment, I shall call the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) to make an application for leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration under the terms of Standing Order No. 24. The hon. Lady has up to three minutes in which to submit her application.
Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016
Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
I seek leave to propose that the House should debate a specific and important matter for urgent consideration—namely, the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016.
As you are aware, Mr Speaker, this is a time-sensitive EU diktat that is allocated to the Government as a negative statutory instrument. Unless the Government provide any time to discuss it, it will just pass through. The Backbench Business Committee is not reconvened and has met only twice since these regulations were brought in. They were tabled in April, and since then, I have had cross-party support for my early-day motion.
The tobacco regulations will have a huge impact on the vaping and harm-reduction products industry if these regulations pass beyond their praying date of 15 June, yet the House will not have had an opportunity to debate this important matter. Only two months ago, the Royal College of Physicians warned:
“Promoting wider use of consumer nicotine products, such as e-cigarettes, could…substantially increase the number of smokers who quit”
“is therefore likely to generate significant health gains in the UK.”
Last year, Public Health England found that e-cigarettes were 95% less harmful than smoking.
Our own Prime Minister said to me in a letter:
“Our view, based on all the evidence available, is that e-cigarettes can help smokers quit and that they are considerably less harmful to the health than continuing to smoke tobacco products.”
Perversely, however, these particular regulations, which we have not yet discussed or debated, will seek to impose severe limits on advertising for vaping products, and bring e-cigarettes under the same regulatory framework as cigarettes. Lord Prior, the Health Minister in the House of Lords said in May that
“we wish people to quit altogether but if, as a way of quitting, they can give up smoking and take up vaping, that is something that we wish to encourage.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 May 2016; Vol. 771, c. 77.]
I sincerely hope that the House will be given the opportunity to consider this matter under Standing Order No. 24 as the deleterious impact of these regulations on smoking cessation and public health shows that we really should give these Brussels regulations some serious consideration before absorbing them.
The hon. Lady asks leave to propose a debate on a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely the Tobacco and Related Products Regulations 2016. I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady’s application, but I am not persuaded that this matter is proper to be discussed under Standing Order No. 24.
I add that if there is significant interest in this matter, either in the House or beyond it, it might be regarded as helpful if, through the usual channels, a debate on it were arranged. I express myself in those relatively careful and understated terms, for it is not within the remit of the Chair. That judgment has to be made elsewhere. The hon. Lady, who is an indefatigable parliamentarian, has made her case with force and eloquence. If I have learned anything about her over the last 11 years when we have served in the House together, I suspect that it is pretty unlikely that she will let go of the bone.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax), the Prime Minister made an assertion on the question of treaty change. He said that he had secured “treaty changes”, but that is clearly not the case. This may have been inadvertent and if so, I have no doubt that the Prime Minister will take the opportunity to correct it. I have to say that it was not a statement that could be sustained in the light of the facts.
I am at a disadvantage by comparison with the hon. Gentleman because I do not enjoy a precise recall of everything that the Prime Minister said at Prime Minister’s Questions earlier, although I rather imagine that the hon. Gentleman does have such a recall and may even be capable of reproducing the verbatim text of prime ministerial answers backwards. Anyone who gives incorrect information to the House is responsible for correcting it. If the Prime Minister judges that he made a mistake, which would naturally be inadvertent, the responsibility is no less great or absolute on him than it would be on any other Member. Knowing the hon. Gentleman as I do, I feel sure that he, too, will not let go of the bone until he receives satisfaction. I will leave it there. His point of order will have been heard on the Treasury Bench, and doubtless its contents will wing their way towards No. 10 Downing Street ere long.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I hope you will be able to help and advise me on how to achieve some consistency in the Government’s position on Saudi Arabia. On 24 May in topical questions, the Foreign Secretary said:
“There is no evidence yet that Saudi Arabia has used cluster munitions.”—[Official Report, 24 May 2016; Vol. 611, c. 395.]
In a written answer of 26 May, however, the Secretary of State for Defence said:
“The UK is aware that Saudi Arabia has used cluster munitions in the current conflict in Yemen.”
In a debate this morning, furthermore, the Minister for Europe said that the Government were seeking clarification about “allegations”. I hope you would agree, Mr Speaker, that this highlights some confusion at the heart of government, which must indeed cast doubt on the Government’s assurances that the Saudis have not broken international humanitarian law.
My response is twofold. First, I am not responsible for the consistency of Government statements. It is probably as well that the Chair has never been responsible for the said consistency under any Government of any complexion. Secondly, if the right hon. Gentleman feels that the statements to which he referred cause such confusion or uncertainty as to render an urgent clarification vital, he knows that there are devices available to him. I say this not to flatter him, but as a matter of fact. The right hon. Gentleman is a former Deputy Leader of the House, so he is well versed in the mechanisms available to him.
[1st Allotted Day]
BBC White Paper
I beg to move,
That this House believes that the Government’s White Paper on the BBC fails to provide an acceptable basis for Charter renewal; notes the threat the White Paper poses to the editorial and financial independence of the BBC; expresses concern about the re-writing of the BBC’s founding mission statement; further notes the concerns about the White Paper expressed by Members of this House and the House of Lords; and calls on the Government to reconsider the proposals contained in the White Paper.
The new BBC charter will form one of the legacies of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, for good or ill. I say that not by way of making any predictions at all about the right hon. Gentleman’s immediate political future as a Cabinet Minister post-EU referendum in the Prime Minister’s revenge reshuffle, but simply by way of drawing attention to what is a fact of life for all Culture Secretaries who oversee the renewal of the BBC charter during their time in office.
The BBC is a revered, trusted national institution to which we all contribute, of which we can all be proud, and on which we all rely for much of our quality programming. In addition, it is admired around the world. It enables us to project the United Kingdom’s influence and soft power across the globe. It is at the heart of our much-admired public broadcasting ecology. It helps to facilitate and nurture our creative industries and talent. Charter renewal provides an opportunity for it to be supported and nurtured, rather than denigrated and diminished.
Unfortunately, I do not believe that the White Paper produced by the Secretary of State rises to that challenge. I fear that it is, in fact, intended to diminish the scope and effectiveness of the BBC. Although it does not contain some of the wilder and more lurid proposals briefed by the right hon. Gentleman’s Department to Conservative-supporting newspapers ahead of its publication, it contains measures which may undermine the BBC’s editorial and financial independence, and which may, during the charter period, be used to chip away at the things that make the BBC the great British institution that it is. Furthermore, it is clear from the consultation responses that the public do not support the direction in which the White Paper proposes to take the BBC. I intend to mention some of those responses today, and to ask the Secretary of State to think again about some of his proposals.
The BBC’s editorial independence is one of the most important requirements of its future success. It must be protected at all costs, and there must be no suspicion that the Government of the day can influence the BBC board in any way. The White Paper’s proposal for BBC governance is among the most important of all its proposals. According to the Government’s own consultation, three quarters of the public want the BBC to remain independent, while 56% believe that it is the broadcaster most likely to produce balanced and unbiased news reporting. That compares with 14% for ITN News, 13% for Sky News and 13% for Channel 4 News. The public really do value the editorial independence of the BBC.
I am loth to stop the hon. Lady when she is in full flow, but I wonder whether she has seen the results of a Government survey of views on the BBC from throughout the United Kingdom. If so, she will have learned that the highest levels of dissatisfaction were found in Scotland. Does that not suggest to her that we need to address this issue creatively? Has not the time now come for the establishment of a federal BBC throughout the United Kingdom, and the introduction of a “Scottish Six” service produced and directed from Scotland?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s focus on matters Scottish, and, of course, I respect the fact that he has views on what policies should be used to address those matters. I do not myself believe that the policy prescriptions that he has just suggested represent the only or, indeed, the right way forward, but I do agree with him that the BBC should be better able to reflect the nations and regions of this country in the way in which it produces news and other programmes. I think that some of the proposals for increasing diversity and devolving production and power in the BBC will gain support across the House, but the question of precisely how that should be done in Scotland is not one on which we would necessarily agree.
No one in the House, I hope, wants to see the BBC become a state broadcaster, or have arrangements for governance that give the impression that it is one. The Government must ensure that there is no question of Government influence on editorial decision-making, but there are serious fears that these plans provide too much power for the Government to exert day-to-day influence on the BBC‘s editorial decision-making.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will in a moment, because I know that the right hon. Gentleman has had some important things to say about this matter.
The director-general has said that there are honest disagreements between Ministers and the BBC on how best to protect and enhance BBC independence. He is a diplomat.
I share the hon. Lady’s passion for BBC independence. As a former BBC journalist, I have been on both sides of these various arguments in my time.
The hon. Lady rightly quoted figures that demonstrated all the audience satisfaction with and public support for the BBC—which, as she knows, I share—but her basic position seems to be that the Government’s proposals in some way undermine its fundamentals. Let me gently point out to her that among those who welcomed the Government’s proposals was the BBC itself. The BBC does not feel that it is being undermined, so why does the hon. Lady think that it is being undermined?
I understand the point that the right hon. Gentleman is making, but I think that when the BBC’s future for the next 11 years is to be decided by the Government of the day, it should not be surprising that it may well agree in public with almost anything that the Government of the day say. Whether or not that is a true reflection of what is going on behind the scenes is another matter.
Does the hon. Lady not accept that the BBC welcomed the proposals because it had got off lightly? It will continue to be funded publicly for the next 11 years, and will be able to persist in its wasteful practice of spending money in a cavalier manner with very little input and curtailment from the Government.
I do not agree with that analysis.
The proposed new unitary board will run the BBC. In his statement on the White Paper in the House on 12 May, the Secretary of State suggested, in effect, that the new board would be like the BBC Trust but without its current regulatory functions, which would go to Ofcom, but in my view that stretches credulity. Page 51 of the White Paper states:
“The board as a whole will have responsibility for setting the overall editorial direction and the framework for editorial standards.”
There is to be only one board instead of two, and that unitary board will run the BBC in all meaningful senses. The Secretary of State plans to enable Ministers to appoint up to half the new board members, including the chair and deputy chair. That creates an unprecedented power for the Government directly to influence those who are responsible for editorial matters at the BBC.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Page 50 of the White Paper clearly states that the appointment of the chair
“will be subject to a confirmatory hearing before the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee”,
and that the appointments of other members of the board will be subject to discussions with the Governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Is the hon. Lady not satisfied with that?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman both for promoting me to the Privy Council and for suggesting that I might be a member of the Tory party, which was probably going a bit too far.
It is, of course, true that some safeguards are implied in the proposals, and that is to be welcomed, but how the proposals look is also important to those outside. I think that simply reiterating that the director-general is the editor-in-chief does not really allay the fears created by the Secretary of State’s plans. I also think that his recent record in respect of public appointments does not reassure those of us who are worried. When the independent panel that was established to appoint a trustee to the National Portrait Gallery failed to shortlist his five favoured candidates—three of whom were Tory donors and one of whom was an ex-Minister—he simply scrapped the appointments process, and attempted to impugn the integrity of the chair of the panel. This prompted a furious slap-down from the now-retired Commissioner for Public Appointments, who accused him of exercising political interference in a supposedly objective public appointments process. We only know about this debacle because Sir David Normington’s letter was leaked.
Members on both sides of the House have expressed concern about the implications of the White Paper for the BBC and its editorial independence. The right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) might have had his concerns allayed, but he has described editorial independence as a red line. The Culture, Media and Sport Committee Chairman said as recently as yesterday that the plans had prompted “a lot of concern”, and the Voice of the Listener and Viewer has said that
“there remain a number of concerns relating to independence”.
It is still not too late for the Secretary of State to make it clear that the appointments to the new unitary board will be made through a demonstrably independent means and that he will not seek to influence the outcome of the process. Indeed, it would benefit him if he were to do that. Why does he not undertake today to agree that the Commissioner for Public Appointments should run the process of appointing the board members, and restrict his own power to appointing those people who have been selected through such an independent process? He really needs to provide proper reassurance, and he can do so. Such an undertaking would be heartily welcomed across the House.
Ofcom will have a new role setting service licences and quotas for the BBC. It is important that this regulatory regime should not be used to interfere with the editorial and creative freedom of the BBC to use licence fee payers’ money to produce the programming it decides to produce. There must be no efforts from the Government to pursue the wilder proposals on scheduling and so-called distinctiveness that did not, in the end, find their way into the White Paper. We will seek assurances that Ofcom’s role in this respect will not impact unduly on the BBC’s editorial independence or be a weapon to be used by the Government or the BBC’s commercial rivals to interfere with the BBC’s creative freedom.
The BBC must be seen to retain its financial independence as well as its editorial independence. In that respect, the explicit statement on page 97 of the White Paper that
“the licence fee is not solely for the use of the BBC”
is deplorable, and could impinge on the BBC’s financial independence. I am glad that there is to be no more top-slicing of the licence fee. That would have constituted a breach of last year’s funding agreement—of which the House knows I have been critical in any event—between the BBC and the Government. The White Paper proposes the creation of a contestable pot of licence fee payers’ money, worth £20 million a year over three years. This sets an unwelcome precedent. Governments of all stripes have been too keen in recent years to see the licence fee as money for the Treasury to allocate to its own priorities. I believe that licence fee payers’ money should properly be seen as belonging to the BBC to enable it to fulfil its remit. It should be for the BBC to decide how it wishes to do that, not for the Secretary of State or the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The Secretary of State has said his Department will consult on this proposal. If the consultation responses are against establishing the contestable pot, will he undertake to drop the idea? Will he tell us today when his consultation will start and when he intends it to finish? Can he confirm that the same levels of transparency and accountability that apply to BBC funding will be applied to this contestable pot if his pilot goes ahead? Has he considered the fact that this could be categorised as state aid if it is given to other broadcasters to use, as he no doubt intends?
We agree that the BBC should be as transparent and accountable as possible in relation to the licence fee payers’ money that it spends, so we support the idea of the National Audit Office being allowed to investigate the publicly funded areas of the BBC. However, allowing the NAO to audit the BBC’s commercial operations, which are not in receipt of any licence fee payers’ money, could place those operations at a significant market disadvantage. What argument is there for doing that? The commercial operations of museums, for example, are not open to the NAO scrutiny, and I know of no organisation in the private sector that receives public money that is subject to NAO scrutiny.
Failure to get this right could have the effect of reducing returns for BBC Worldwide, thereby limiting the extent to which the BBC is able to subsidise the licence fee through its commercial operations. The money that it makes from BBC Worldwide operations currently amounts to more than 12.5% of the BBC’s entire content budget, which would save licence fee payers the equivalent of more than £10 each if the licence fee had to be increased to cover a shortfall of that amount.
The hon. Lady is a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, as indeed am I. She will be aware that the Committee has a long-standing issue with the BBC in relation to parliamentary accountability. Is she in favour of an increase in that accountability?
That is going back a bit, but I am indeed a former member of the Public Accounts Committee, and that is one of the reasons that I have very high regard for the abilities of the National Audit Office. I have no problem with the NAO being the auditor of the BBC, but there is an issue with its being the auditor of the BBC’s purely commercial operations. Is it really appropriate for the NAO to pursue entirely private money that has nothing to do with public funding? If this goes ahead, it will set an interesting precedent. I want to hear from the Secretary of State why he thinks this might be appropriate. I want to hear his arguments for doing it, because I think that there could be difficulties.
I am also concerned about the imposition of a mid-term health check on the new charter. It seems suspiciously like the break clause—which the newspapers were briefed that the Secretary of State wanted—by another name. We welcome the fact that the charter is to last for 11 years, and it should not be compromised or have the agreement that underpins it reopened by the back door during that period. I am concerned that the so-called health check—the break clause by another name—will be destabilising for the BBC and create uncertainty, which will not be helpful. Page 58 of the White Paper states:
“It will be for the government of the day to determine the precise scope”—
of the health check—
“consulting the BBC’s unitary board and Ofcom”.
So, the Government could decide, were they so minded, to reopen such questions as whether the licence fee belongs to the BBC or should be given to other broadcasters, the extent of the contestable pot, whether the licence fee is indeed the right form of funding, and any number of other things that would in effect reopen the charter settlement.
The Secretary of State told the Culture, Media and Sport Committee yesterday that this was not his intention. He now has an opportunity to guarantee, in the charter and the agreement he makes with the BBC, that any such process will have the narrowest possible focus and cannot be used to reopen the fundamental tenets that underpin the charter halfway through its term. We need reassurance, in other words, that it will not be a five-year charter in all but name.
I know that Members raised this issue when the White Paper was published. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) pressed Ministers for more detail on this point immediately after its publication. In the other place, the Conservative Lord Fowler has questioned the plan to have such a review, arguing that these functions should be left to a
“strong board of independent directors”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 May 2016; Vol. 771, c. 1825.]
He stated that those directors should be allowed to run the BBC “without interference”, and I find myself agreeing with him. Can the Secretary of State confirm today that the health check—if he decides to persevere with it—will be able to recommend proposals to be included only in the subsequent charter, rather than being used to compromise the BBC’s independence midway through the charter term we are about to embark on? Will he reassure the House, especially Opposition Members, that it will be set in the narrowest possible terms?
The BBC’s core Reithian mission to “inform, educate and entertain” has worked well for over 90 years. It is the foundation on which the corporation’s success has been built. There has always been a virtue in the clarity provided by the simplicity of the current mission statement that has stood the BBC in good stead, so why is the Secretary of State determined to alter the substance of the mission statement to include
“an explicit requirement to be distinctive, high quality and impartial”?
What exactly do the Government mean by “distinctiveness”? It is one of those words that can mean all things to all people. It certainly means something different to him than it means to the BBC or members of the public. Page 32 of the White Paper defines distinctiveness as:
“A requirement that the BBC should be substantially different to other providers across each and every service”.
That hardly pins it down. Ministers must allay the concerns that this could be interpreted as the BBC being forced to withdraw from anything its commercial rivals wish it was not doing, for their own commercial gain.
The Secretary of State has questioned the distinctiveness of some of the BBC’s most popular programmes, such as “Strictly Come Dancing”. The White Paper states on page 71:
“The government is clear that it cannot and indeed should not determine either the content or scheduling of programmes.”
However, it also sets out prescriptive content requirements for radio and TV. To take one example for TV, it demands on page 38:
“Fewer high-output long-term titles.”
He seems to be telling the BBC to stop producing much-loved shows, such as “Countryfile”, “Casualty” and “Doctor Who”, that happen to have been produced for many years. What reassurances can he give that he will not simply require Ofcom to make the BBC back off doing things he does not like, on the basis of those extremely prescriptive requirements?
I do not think that anyone wants the BBC to be unable to make popular programmes, but does the hon. Lady accept that companies such as ITV have a valid point when they say that the money that is available to the BBC every year through the licence fee gives it an advantage in the ratings war and in buying in programmes that help it in that ratings war?
I think that competition between private and commercial broadcasters and public broadcasters in this country on the basis of high-quality programming benefits all sectors, the British public and our creative industries. I do not accept that the BBC being able to make good-quality programmes, perhaps over an extended number of years, somehow compromises the capacity of the rest of our broadcasting and TV industry to do similar things. It gives us a better, bigger, richer broadcasting ecology.
If the Secretary of State, who is a free marketeer by instinct, wishes to intervene by micromanaging the public sector elements of our broadcasting industry, he is making a very big mistake, as well as turning into a statist, interfering Minister who should leave our broadcasters to get on with the job that they do so well, particularly those who work in the BBC.
My hon. Friend talks about the Secretary of State micromanaging the BBC. Is she as disappointed as I am that, although there is a lot of micromanagement, there is not much micromanagement to make sure that there is more diversity at the BBC in respect of its programmes, producers and so on?
I agree with my hon. Friend that the BBC needs to do more on diversity. To be fair to the Secretary of State—I want to be fair to him, of course—he is concerned about that too. It is perfectly reasonable to expect the BBC to achieve results. The difficulty is when Ministers start telling it precisely how it should achieve those results. That is when we run into difficulties. It is perfectly reasonable, as he has said, to expect the BBC to do better in that regard. I think we all expect that.
We should be in no doubt about the scale of the public’s support for the BBC. Some 192,000 people participated in the public consultation on the charter, which is the second largest response to a Government consultation ever. More than four fifths of the responses indicated that the BBC is serving its audiences well; 66% indicated that the BBC has a positive wider impact on the market; and approximately two thirds indicated that BBC expansion was justified, rather than its diminution. Although the public’s overwhelming support for the BBC cannot be in any doubt, the Secretary of State should recall that there is concern about some of the Government’s proposals. For example, 62% of over-60s are suspicious of the Government’s intentions towards the BBC.
I hope that the Secretary of State will consider fully the widespread concerns among the public, industry professionals and parliamentarians about his proposals, and take steps genuinely to change them to reassure those of us who care about the future of the BBC over the next charter period. If he does so, he will be able to look back on his time in office as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport knowing that he boosted the BBC. If he does not, I believe that his legacy will be seen as rather more disruptive.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” in line 1 to end and add:
“notes the positive response from the BBC to the publication of the BBC White Paper which sets a clear framework for a stable and successful future for one of the United Kingdom’s finest institutions, enhancing its independence and empowering it to continue to create distinctive, high-quality and well-liked programmes and content; welcomes the open and consultative process that has informed the Charter Review including the second largest ever public consultation and the detailed contribution from committees of both Houses to the Charter Review process; and notes the Government’s intention to publish a draft Charter, in good time, for debate in the devolved administrations, as well as both Houses, before the Charter is finalised.”
I thank the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) for giving the House the opportunity to debate the White Paper on the future of the BBC, even if I am less than happy with the terms of her motion. The motion talks about the “threat” to the
“editorial and financial independence of the BBC”—
two principles that will be explicitly strengthened, rather than weakened, under the proposals in the White Paper. However, that is typical of the entire debate around the charter renewal process, which has been characterised by the Government’s critics tilting at windmills, perhaps in tribute to Cervantes, the 400th anniversary of whose death we are commemorating, alongside that of Shakespeare.
The White Paper was designed not to wreck the BBC, but rather to cement its status as the finest broadcaster in the world for many years to come. It was informed by an extensive consultation—the largest of its kind ever undertaken by Government. We talked frequently and at length to representatives of the BBC—both the management and the trust—in what the chair of the BBC has described as “constructive engagement”. We received more than 190,000 responses from the public; 16 focus groups were held; there was nationally representative polling of more than 4,000 adults across the UK; and more than 300 organisations and experts engaged with us. I will not list all of those, but to give a flavour of how diverse they were, let me say that they included the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation, the British Film Institute, Equity, Glasgow City Council, Sir Lenny Henry, the Met Office, the National Union of Journalists, UK Sport and the Wellcome Trust.
I am also grateful to the members of the advisory group, who provided expert views; to Armando Iannucci, who assembled two panels containing some of the best and brightest creative minds working in television today; and to David Clementi and David Perry, who conducted detailed reviews of BBC governance and licence fee enforcement respectively. Moreover, February saw the publication of reports on BBC charter review by Select Committees of both Houses. Each one was considered very carefully by myself and the Department, and I am pleased that we agreed with many of their recommendations.
I say the same thing that I said to the shadow Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will have seen from the response from Scotland that the dissatisfaction levels there are higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom. There is a sense that the BBC does not properly and adequately reflect us as a nation. What will he do to address those concerns?
I share those concerns. It is a matter that I discussed at some length with the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson), who is hoping to catch your eye shortly, Madam Deputy Speaker. He is a member of the Select Committee that I gave evidence to yesterday on charter review. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) is absolutely right that opinion research has shown that the level of satisfaction with the BBC, while still being high, is lower in Scotland than in other parts of the United Kingdom. That is of concern to the BBC. We have sought to put in place new measures to ensure that the BBC takes action to address that. First, there is representation on the board. We want somebody who will act as a voice for Scotland, and I will come on to the governance arrangements shortly. Secondly, there will be a new service licence for each of the nations of the UK, so there will be a specific service licence setting out in broad terms how the BBC is expected to ensure that it meets the needs of people in Scotland. However, at the end of the day, these are matters for the BBC. The service licence, like all service licences, will be set in broad terms. How the BBC goes about raising the level of satisfaction in its output in Scotland is ultimately a matter for the organisation, but I know that it is anxious to address that. I am sure that the director-general will be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about that.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for that. He knows that there is great concern about this issue in Scotland. A few proposals have emerged, including the one from the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs in the Scottish Parliament for a much more federal type of BBC. There is also the ongoing discussion about a new service that is produced in Scotland, where we can see the eyes of the world through a Scottish production with Scottish values. Does the Secretary of State see any merit in that? If he does not, what is wrong with those suggestions?
This is the point at which I fear I will disappoint the hon. Gentleman. Although it is important that the BBC achieves high levels of satisfaction right across the United Kingdom, it is the British Broadcasting Corporation and it represents the whole of the United Kingdom, and I do not support making it a federal structure. The question of how it provides news coverage is for the BBC, but as it is the UK broadcaster, it is important that it should provide a UK-wide national news bulletin that draws the nation together.
I thank the Secretary of State for so generously giving way. On this issue of Scotland and other regions in the United Kingdom, does he agree that, under this new arrangement, Scotland has far greater representation than many regions within England? The west midlands, for example, has an equivalent population to Scotland, but Scotland has a much greater seat at the table.
There will be a non-executive member of the BBC board to represent England, but not specifically each region. The requirement on the BBC, as part of its purpose, is to serve the nations and regions. The BBC is fully aware of the dissatisfaction that is felt in some parts of England. My hon. Friend identified the west midlands. The level of investment by the BBC in the west midlands has already been debated in the House in the past. It is important for the BBC to invest in production in every part of the United Kingdom and to reflect the requirements of every part of the country.
Mention is made in the White Paper of sub-committees for the four nations. Can the Secretary of State elaborate a little more on what might be the make-up of those sub-committees and how they will be chosen?
I am afraid that I cannot do that at this stage. That will primarily be a matter for the BBC. While the charter will set out the over-arching governance structure—in other words the creation of a unitary board and an external regulator—organisation within the corporation itself is largely a matter for the BBC. Obviously, I encourage the hon. Lady to discuss that matter with the BBC and perhaps the new chairman of the board, who is currently the chairman of the BBC Trust.
I was tempted by the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire to talk about some of the evidence that I gave yesterday to the Select Committee. Obviously, the House of Lords Committee has also taken a close interest in these matters, and I have no doubt that the Committees in both Houses will continue to do so as we move towards producing a draft charter, which I hope to do before the summer. Members will then have plenty of time to study it in detail before debates in both Houses as well as in the devolved Administrations, as we committed to in the memorandum of understanding with the devolved Administrations. Once approved by the Privy Council, the new charter will formally come into effect on 1 January 2017 and the BBC will then transition to its new model of governance and regulation over the ensuing months.
I will not repeat all the details of the White Paper, because we had a lengthy discussion when it was published, but let me address the two specific concerns, which were raised by the shadow Secretary of State, of editorial and financial independence. On the former, the new governance structure is exactly as recommended by Sir David Clementi in his widely welcomed report. Whereas previously all of the appointments of the governors of the BBC and, following changes, the BBC Trust were made by the Government, at least half of the new BBC board will be appointed by the BBC. The six positions that are Government appointees will be made through the public appointments process, which was not previously in place. Peter Riddell, the new commissioner for public appointments, said:
“I welcome the broad principles outlined in today’s BBC White Paper about how appointments will be made to the new Unitary Board. To put these into practice, there will need to be a robust, independent process which attracts a broad range of candidates for these posts.”
That is exactly what the Government want to see. The BBC accepts that the Government should appoint both the chairman and the deputy chairman through the public appointments process. It has questioned whether the Government should make the appointment of four non-executive directors, but those four NEDs are there specifically to represent each of the nations of the UK, and their appointment is made not just by the Government in Westminster, but in consultation with the devolved Administrations. If that was taken away, we would lose the ability of the devolved Administrations to have a say in the appointment of the governor to represent each of the nations of the UK.
However, as well as putting in place a more independent board, we will also strengthen the independence of the director-general as editor-in-chief. Editorial decisions will be a matter for him and the BBC executives— not for non-executive board members. Those non-executive members will be able to hold the director-general to account for his decisions, but only after programmes are transmitted. It is clear that the board’s involvement is to oversee and to deal with possible complaints about editorial decisions, but only after transmission of programmes.
The shadow Secretary of State mentioned that we have decided to extend the term of the charter to 11 years specifically to meet the concern that it should not coincide with the electoral cycle. It is correct that we are intending to have a mid-term health check, and, as I have repeatedly said, it is precisely that—a health check. It is not an opening up of the charter. However, it does seem sensible that, if we are setting a charter for 11 years, we should not have no opportunity whatever to look at how it is working for the whole of that 11-year period, particularly at a time when changes are taking place so rapidly. We have said explicitly in the White Paper that it is a review to provide a health check focusing on the governance and regulatory reforms in the mid-term. We have gone on to say that the review will not consider changes to the fundamental mission, purposes and licence fee model as these have been determined by the current charter review process. I make it clear again that this is a health check to examine how the changes we are putting in place are working, but we do not anticipate any need to reopen questions about the charter.
Given the criticisms of the inefficiency and value for money at the BBC, the huge payouts for people who are made redundant, for example, and then come back nearly a year later—even the National Union of Journalists has criticised that—and the high levels of pay at management level, if after five years there has been no reform or change in the squandering of money by the BBC, what will happen at the review at that stage? Would the Secretary of State reconsider the licence fee or would he put in greater financial controls?
We are actually putting in stronger financial controls now, because we are opening up the whole of the BBC for the National Audit Office to examine to consider the questions of whether maximum value for money is being obtained for the licence fee payer. Not only will the NAO be able to carry out value-for-money studies, as it has in some areas already, but it will become the auditor of the BBC. The NAO has a very good record of ensuring that public money is spent properly and is not wasted.
To return to the health check, does the Secretary of State envisage that it would cover whether or not adequate progress had been made to allow access to independent producers, as set out in the White Paper?
We have set out a path that will, we hope, lead to the whole of the BBC’s schedule being opened up for commissioning. We would expect the BBC to meet the targets in doing that. We will continue to talk to the BBC about that and if it looked as though they were failing to meet those targets we might raise that with them before, but that is already set out in the charter. No changes would be required, because we have already made it clear that we expect the BBC gradually to open up the whole of the schedule until it reaches 100%.
On the subject of independent producers, after the last debate we had on the BBC I thank the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy for helping to secure the recordings of “The Real McCoy”. I hope to have a special screening in Parliament with a Q&A with some of the original cast in the not too distant future, and I hope that both the Minister and the Secretary of State will come along.
I am delighted to have given way to the hon. Lady to allow her the opportunity to praise my excellent Minister, who is sitting beside me.
I want to come back to the point about the National Audit Office and its ability to carry out value-for-money studies across the BBC. It is correct that the activities of BBC Worldwide are not funded with public money—they are commercially funded—but the success of BBC Worldwide has a definite impact on the finances of the BBC since it generates income for the BBC, and it is important that we extract maximum value to minimise the burden on the licence fee payer. As I mentioned when we debated this issue in the Select Committee yesterday, BBC Worldwide has not always had a brilliant record of looking after the money it spends. The Select Committee, when I was the Chair in the last Parliament, was highly critical of the Lonely Planet saga, which resulted in a massive loss to BBC Worldwide. However, I can reassure the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood and the BBC that the National Audit Office is very aware of the concerns that have been expressed and is confident that it can provide reassurance that it will have no impact either on creative decision making in the BBC or on commercial negotiations with other companies.
The NAO already audits a number of public bodies that have commercial relationships with other companies and is well familiar with the need to maintain commercial confidentiality when necessary. I know that the Comptroller and Auditor General will continue to talk to the BBC, but I very much hope that we can find a way whereby the BBC’s concerns are satisfied. The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood also talked about the BBC’s financial independence and, as I said, I believe that we have strengthened that rather than diminished it. We have agreed that the licence fee should be subject to regular review every five years, and that for the first five-year period it should rise each year in line with inflation, having been frozen for a long time. We have also agreed to close the iPlayer loophole and to phase out the broadband top-slice. That means that the BBC can now plan with certainty on the basis of licence fee income, along with its own commercial earnings, and it will have total flexibility in how it spends its money, with the single exception of the ring fence for the BBC World Service and the top-up grant that the Government are giving to fund its expansion.
The Secretary of State is outlining the freedom that the BBC will continue to have in expenditure, but one of the big concerns for the public is transparency. Why was there a withdrawal from the proposal to force the BBC to publish the pay packages of presenters and others in the BBC? It was originally set at about £150,000, but now it is up to a massive £450,000. Why was the decision taken to increase that when most members of the public think that it was perfectly reasonable, as this is public money and the information should be out there and transparent?
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says and have some sympathy with him. We debated with the BBC the appropriate level at which to set the publication limit and, after that debate, set it at £450,000 as a first step. It will mean that those individuals who are the highest paid on the BBC payroll will now be identified, and I think that is an important step forward in transparency. I hope that it is not the end of the saga and I would encourage the BBC to go further. The BBC expressed concerns about the consequences if it were required to publish the names of more individuals at lower levels of pay, but we will see how this first step goes. I share the right hon. Gentleman’s hope and I hope that in due course we might see more publication.
May I suggest to the Secretary of State that tweaking that level downwards might be reviewed at the five-year point?
I am sure that the BBC, which will be anxiously listening to this debate, will have heard the pressure that is being put on the Government to achieve greater transparency. Since I too would like to see that, I hope that it will consider it.
Is my right hon. Friend absolutely certain that nobody wishes the limit to be set at a much lower level?
The people who initially did not want it to be set at a lower level were in the BBC. The BBC raised concerns about the potential consequences. For instance, it talked about whether it might result in poaching once people’s salary levels were known. There was also a concern that it might have the effect of bidding up salaries. I do not think that those concerns are merited, but as I say, we have taken a first step towards greater transparency and I hope that in due course we can go further.
Let me very quickly address the point raised by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood about the contestable pot. The contestable pot is a small amount of money, amounting to £60 million over three years, which, out of the total amount of money available to the BBC, is a very small amount. It does not affect the July settlement. We made it absolutely clear that the Government stand by the July settlement, and the funding for the contestable pot does not in any way affect it. We will be consulting on precisely how the contestable pot will operate. The hon. Lady raises concerns about whether it will fall within the requirements in respect of state aid. I rather hope that that will become an academic issue in a few weeks’ time but if, extraordinarily, it still applies, we will need to take that into account.
Far from threatening the BBC, the proposals in the White Paper, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) said earlier, have been welcomed by it. Lord Hall, the director-general, said:
“This White Paper delivers a mandate for the strong, creative BBC the public believe in. A BBC that will be good for the creative industries—and most importantly of all, for Britain.”
The BBC Trust chairman has, as I mentioned earlier, talked about the
“constructive engagement between the Government, the BBC and the public”
“has delivered a White Paper that sets good principles, strengthens the BBC’s governance and regulation and cements a financial settlement”.
The chair of the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, Laura Mansfield, said:
“This is an historic charter for the UK’s entire production sector and recognises the world-leading creativity British producers bring across every genre of production. This white paper will give BBC commissioners the freedom to choose the very best ideas, wherever they come from, whether that’s BBC Studios, the smallest or the largest production companies, while ensuring diversity of supply and regionality is rightly protected.”
The right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) was one of the first people who celebrated the fact that diversity is for the first time to be enshrined in the BBC charter.
On regulation and diversity, does my right hon. Friend agree that Ofcom itself may need to better reflect the population of the United Kingdom, especially as diversity becomes an ever-increasing component of its regulatory requirement?
Does my hon. Friend mean the composition of Ofcom or its actions?
The make-up. At present its diversity figures at senior management level are about 6%.
My hon. Friend raises a perfectly valid point. Obviously, Ofcom is a public body. We would want to set an example in achieving diversity, and if its performance falls short, that is something which I know my hon. Friend the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy and I will be happy to point out to the chairman and the chief executive.
Can the Secretary of State clarify whether one of the benefits for the BBC will be that it will now have access to the database of Sky and other broadcasters, so that it can identify the names and addresses of people who may not be licence fee payers?
We are looking at ways of enforcing the licence fee requirement. Anybody who watches live television is required to have a licence, so those databases represent people who are required to have a television licence.
I wish to add in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) that although I would not suggest that she is not right to be concerned, Ofcom took a major step towards greater diversity with the appointment of a female BME chief executive, who is doing a fantastic job. I am sure she would agree that there is still more that needs to be done.
Diversity is an important issue which is close to the hearts of many of us and we are making good headway on it, but does my right hon. Friend believe that designated funding—ring-fenced funding—might be helpful in driving diversity, as suggested by Lenny Henry?
We have set diversity as one of the public purposes in the charter. How the BBC delivers that is a matter for the BBC, but having been given that requirement, it will have to state how it will go about it, and that will be subject to Ofcom scrutiny.
The BBC reaches 97% of the UK population and 348 million people around the world every week. It is one of our most recognisable and strongest national brands and an utterly vital source of information, education, entertainment and soft power. It is precisely because the BBC has such a special place in British life and is so valued by the British people, and because the rest of the world feels the same way, that this Government wanted to secure its future and enable it to thrive in a media landscape that has changed beyond recognition in the past decade. That is what the proposals in this White Paper do.
I welcome this opportunity to speak about the BBC in the aftermath of the publication of the Government’s White Paper on charter renewal and the Secretary of State’s appearance yesterday before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which I am a member.
We on the SNP Benches are passionate defenders of public service broadcasting and independent journalism, so throughout the charter renewal process the SNP has engaged constructively in the debate about how the BBC can be protected and improved.
At its best the BBC is unsurpassed. Since its foundation in 1922, the BBC’s mission has been, as we all know, to inform, educate and entertain. It forms one of the cornerstones of all our national lives. In our homes daily it can be an intimate friend or sometimes an infuriating relative, but we are proud of it at its best, not least for its world-renowned reputation.
Any organisation that is successful over such a period of time must adapt. It must be able to embrace changes in technology, as well as changes in the society in which it operates. Charter renewal allows the BBC and Parliament to take stock and assess what the BBC is doing well and where it needs to improve. For some on the Government Benches and in the press who dislike the BBC, the process holds out the opportunity to attack the corporation’s core functions, and indeed during the charter renewal process we saw some wild notions floated. Some, of course, were newspaper fabrications. Other were clearly the result of Government kite flying. All of us know how that works. Ministers are able to float fanciful notions for radical reform and assess the reaction before the Secretary of State fans himself with faux horror and tells us that, of course, he had absolutely nothing whatever to do with the ludicrous and impractical proposals splashed across the pages of the madder right-wing tabloids.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a bit of a cheerleader for the BBC, but does he have any constructive criticisms of it? It may be unsurpassed in many ways at its best, but its best is not 90% of the time.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for teeing up the rest of my speech. This part is what is known as the opening paragraphs, where I say something nice before heading further south for a good kick where it is well deserved.
The hon. Gentleman refers to the Government creating some of the headlines in the right-wing press, as he put it. What logic would there be in doing so and then not delivering? It strikes me as completely illogical and therefore very unlikely that the Government would have put those points in the press.
I am touched by the hon. Gentleman’s naiveté. Let me explain how the process works. Politicians sometimes talk to journalists. They say things that they do not want to be quoted as saying. The journalists then report that. If it floats, the politician then goes on the record; if it does not float, the politician backs away from it. That is generally the way it works. I would be happy to introduce the hon. Gentleman to journalists whom he might find useful in this regard over the coming months.
In the end—this is where I disagree to some extent with the Labour shadow Secretary of State—the White Paper is a relatively unambitious document. I suspect that that may well disappoint the Secretary of State, whom many think may have wanted a more radical legislative legacy.
There are a number of welcome proposals in the White Paper. I am far from a cheerleader for the BBC. The BBC does many things which are good, but it also—as we discovered in Scotland during the referendum, which I will touch on later—does many things which are much less good. We welcome the abolition of the BBC Trust and its replacement by a unitary board. However, like many members of the House, I am worried about the composition of the new board and its independence. How will non-executive members be chosen? Can we be certain that they will not be subject to party political pressure? We have had worrying indicators already.
The National Portrait Gallery in London was recently looking for a new trustee. The selection panel, in a blind sift, rejected all five of the Government’s preferred candidates. The Secretary of State then blithely dismissed the selection panel in its entirety and appointed a new one that pleased him rather more. I pressed him on that during his appearance at the Select Committee yesterday. He told me that the panel had been dismissed because of a technicality. Although he had not necessarily wanted to influence the selection board, he did want them to know who his preferred candidates were.
That is policy masquerading as process. I asked the Secretary of State what would happen at the BBC; specifically, would this happen at the BBC? It seemed obvious, from his reaction, that it would. I do not want independent selection panels for the BBC board to know who the Secretary of State’s preferred candidates are. I want the BBC board to be entirely independent of government. I am worried by the evidence the Secretary of State gave at our Committee yesterday, as anyone, across all parties in this House, who cares about the independence of the BBC should be.
Does the hon. Gentleman not see the other side of the coin? Given the bias that exists within the BBC and the fact that it will be able to choose half the members, with the other half being chosen by the public appointments committee, the real danger is that the BBC will simply continue on its merry way choosing half the board from the cadre of people that it believes most reflect the BBC values that many people currently reject. There would be a diversity of people chosen by the public appointments board.
I am afraid that that is simply called editorial independence. There should be board members chosen by the BBC who are independent and not subject to politicians’ pressure. However, non-executive members should be entirely independent as well. What worried me yesterday about the Secretary of State’s evidence was that he showed a willingness to apply political pressure to non-executive board members. That is something that all Members across the House should be disturbed to hear.
I am puzzled. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the Scottish Government should give up their right to have a say over the appointment of a non-executive director on the BBC board?
I am absolutely delighted for the Scottish Government to have a say. My objection, however, is about something different. My objection is to political pressure being put on appointments, in particular to the main board. As we all know, the main board, with the number of members it has, will be enormously powerful. In fact, the Secretary of State yesterday argued how different this board would be from the previous trust—he said it would have real teeth. It is therefore vital that we should have fully independent board members, specifically the non-executive members the Government want to appoint.
Does the hon. Gentleman think the new BBC board will be more or less accountable and democratic than the outgoing BBC Trust?
The answer to that is we do not know yet. That is precisely why I am addressing these concerns in Parliament today. If the non-executive board members are truly independent, of course that is a great thing. However, the evidence the Secretary of State gave yesterday was worrying for the reasons I have given.
Trust in the BBC is crucial. It is no secret, as my hon. Friends have mentioned, that many in Scotland have been suspicious of BBC objectivity in recent years. The Secretary of State said a short while ago that a majority in Scotland—although he acknowledged a lesser number—were pleased with the BBC, but let me give the House the figure from the BBC Trust itself. The BBC enjoys only a 48% satisfaction rating in Scotland—less than half, for those who are numerically challenged. Sometimes criticisms of the BBC in Scotland have been fair and sometimes not, but the BBC itself—the Secretary of State acknowledged this—has a problem in Scotland.
We welcome other proposals in the White Paper. Licensed services issued by the new regulator Ofcom will include specific regulatory provision for all the nations. Out-of-London quotas will be maintained, which should enable a healthy, independent production sector in the nations and regions. The BBC’s network television supply target will be 17% for content spending in the nations, with spending proportionate to the population of each nation. That suggests some progress in adapting the BBC to the changing needs of these islands in 2016 and beyond.
Of course, many of the changes required must come from within the BBC itself. There are proposals for the creation of a BBC Scotland board to oversee dedicated, nation-specific services. This would help to devolve decision-making, increasing the likelihood of relevant and reflective content suited for distinct audiences. We welcome the idea of a separate Scottish board, as proposed. We want to see a BBC that is editorially independent and well-resourced; a BBC that is bold and creative, and one that is crucially representative of, and delivers for, both Scottish and UK audiences as a whole. With a more responsive governance structure, we believe the BBC would be more nimble and better able to address the concerns of audiences.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Chancellor very recently, without warning, cut £1 million from the budget of BBC Alba, the excellent Scottish Gaelic media service. That rather flies in the face of the stated support for BBC Alba in the White Paper. Does he agree that this throws the Government’s motives towards the BBC into question more generally?
I agree that that was most disappointing. BBC Alba is a fine product universally admired across all parties in Scotland. Gaelic is a struggling language that is part of our national culture. Every opportunity we can take to enhance, embrace and support the Gaelic language, especially on television, should be taken.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is in all our interests that we have a board that reflects the entirety of the society we are in? To have a board packed with lefty luvvies does his cause and my cause no good. It would be right for the Minister to, at times, ensure that there is someone who is centrist or even maybe slightly to the right on that board.
The hon. Gentleman does himself down. Perhaps in Northern Ireland he is seen as a radical, but here I have always seen him as a centrist luvvie. The BBC should of course reflect the society in which we all live. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman mentions deselection. I did not mean to be quite so wounding. As we all saw in the recent debate on BME and lesbian and gay representation—something I know the hon. Gentleman cares passionately about—I think we are all keen to see more equal representation at all levels in the BBC, from presenters to management and, of course, on the new board.
Combined with greater financial commissioning and editorial control, we believe the BBC in Scotland can provide relevant reflective programming and support our nation’s creative industries. We believe that bringing the BBC closer to viewers and listeners in Scotland is the best way of ensuring trust in, and satisfaction with, the BBC, and making sure it is rebuilt and retained.
Let me turn to news provision in Scotland, because I think it lies at the heart of the problem of trust for the BBC in Scotland. Some Members of the House may know that I spent much of my previous career in television news and current affairs. I reported for “On the Record”, “Panorama”, “Assignment” and “Newsnight”, and I presented “BBC Breakfast” and “ITV News”. I am passionate about editorially independent news. I therefore speak as a friend, albeit a critical one, when I say I do not think the BBC covered itself in glory during our referendum on independence. The model for coverage was wrong. The BBC treated a binary choice as though it were a traditional election. Proponents of the status quo were subjected to much less scrutiny than those who wanted constitutional change.
Is it not really simply the fact that the BBC had the gross audacity to point out that an economic plan based on $100 a barrel was nonsense?
That is a soundbite, not an answer to my arguments.
The problem was that the BBC treated the referendum coverage not as a binary choice but as a traditional election. The BBC recognises that it made a mistake in that, but let me tell the House how it does so. It says, on the one hand, “We made no mistakes whatsoever in our coverage of the referendum”, but then simultaneously says, “We must learn the lessons from the Scottish referendum in the way that we cover the European referendum”—and it now tells me that it has done that in its current coverage. It cannot say that it made no mistakes in covering the Scottish referendum and simultaneously say that it will learn lessons from it—that is intellectually incoherent.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this point, which goes to the heart of where the BBC is critically wrong, because that coverage could have determined the outcome of the electoral process. That happened in our country in 1998, when Alastair Campbell flew to Belfast and said that he could rely on his friends in the BBC and in the press to do the Government’s job for him. At that point, the BBC lost all credibility, and today it stands in a shambles in Northern Ireland.
There is widespread agreement that the BBC did not do well in Scotland during the referendum. The corporation looked stretched and dated, and there were fresh calls for what became known as the “Scottish Six”. At the moment in Scotland, the evening news on TV cannot cover any news item outwith Scotland. Armageddon in Carlisle? The BBC Scotland coverage will lead on an airshow in Carluke. I sometimes get emails from people who are upset when I say this, so let me make it clear that it is not the fault of the journalists, but the fault of the remit, and it leads to couthie, entrenched provincialism. The BBC has been piloting a new, grown-up programme that would cover news based on merit and have a normal remit. If the main story is a UK one, that will lead the news; if American, that will lead the news; if Scottish, that will lead the news. BBC Radio Scotland has done this for decades, and BBC Alba has done it for a number of years.
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman’s argument, because most people do not think the BBC is biased. Could he give just one example of where he has a grievance about a particular story that he thinks was biased, and then we can perhaps look into it and judge it on its merits?
It is not a question of one example but of the ongoing nature of the coverage during the referendum. As I have tried to explain, the problem was ongoing. People do not have to take my word for this. The fact that the BBC’s approval ratings are so low in Scotland obviously shows that there is a problem. There is no point in looking at figures that show that 52% of people believe that the BBC does not cover the country well and then saying, “Well, it’s just the SNP who are making a big fuss about it.” It is a deeply entrenched problem in Scotland. As somebody who loves independent journalism, as I hope I made clear in my earlier comments about the independence of the BBC, I hope that people will take me at face value when I say that I want to see an editorially independent BBC Scotland and, indeed, BBC network.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Does the hon. Gentleman mind if I proceed for a moment or two?
There have recently been rumours of political interference, on the subject of the “Scottish Six”, emanating from worried BBC staffers. Let me remind the Secretary of State about our chats on the subject over the past few months. Charmingly, if candidly, he said yesterday at the Select Committee that he was
“not qualified to judge the BBC’s output in Scotland or the reasons for its unpopularity.”
On that we are agreed—he is not qualified. In March, however, he told me in this Chamber that he agreed that increased investment and employment at BBC Scotland would be beneficial. He said:
“I obviously welcome any investment at the BBC that will create additional jobs, particularly in Scotland”.—[Official Report, 3 March 2016; Vol. 606, c. 1083.]
On that occasion, when I asked about the separate “Scottish Six”, the Secretary of State assured me that it was a matter for the BBC and that neither he nor his colleagues at No. 10 Downing Street would want to interfere. I hope he recalls his comments.
He nods to say that he does. However, yesterday, when I pressed him three times in the Select Committee on whether he had been talking to BBC bosses about the “Scottish Six”, or trying to influence them, his body language looked a trifle uncomfortable, and eventually he conceded something very different. He told me that he
“might have concerns if he felt that the central place of the BBC in providing a nationwide news bulletin was being changed”
and added that the BBC
“has a responsibility to bring the nation together and news is part of that.”
Let us reflect on that line: that the job of BBC news is to bring the nation together. I could not disagree more. The job of the BBC is not to be a cheerleader for one constitutional settlement or another—that is what has caused all the distrust in Scotland. The job of the BBC is to be editorially and journalistically independent.
The Secretary of State should be playing no role whatsoever in trying to influence or block a separate “Scottish Six”. He himself stated several times that it should be a matter for the BBC and that he was not qualified to judge as he was not familiar with the BBC’s news output in Scotland. Such interference would undermine the statements made in the White Paper regarding improving the BBC’s services in the nations and restoring confidence there. It would show a blatant disregard and lack of respect for the constituent nations of the UK, including the devolved Administrations who have participated fully in the charter renewal process, and in good faith. Furthermore, it would undermine the plans that the BBC is intent on implementing.
So there we have it: a White Paper with which we broadly agree, but worrying signs that the Government want to tamper with the editorial independence of the BBC in Scotland and tamper with the political independence of the proposed new BBC board in London. SNP Members will resist both, just as we will fight any upcoming moves to privatise Channel 4. With Mr Speaker’s permission, I am now heading to the DCMS Committee to hear about Channel 4’s annual report and to offer it some moral support. Interference in the decision making of the BBC by the Government would put the independence of the BBC—a key feature of the organisation—in jeopardy, tarnishing its reliability and reputation.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. Eight Members are wishing to catch my eye to speak in this debate, and we are hoping to finish at about 4.30 pm, so if everybody sticks to about 10 minutes, then I think we will come in on perfect time.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) mentioned his BBC past, so I too should declare that I spent five of my happiest years at the BBC, where many of the people I worked with were some of the finest professionals I have worked with anywhere. Many of them existed on low salaries, very much in contrast to the supposed talent that so often fills our pages. That is not a moan about my own salary, of course.
One of the main duties of any Government is the maintenance of our country’s most important institutions, of which the BBC is undoubtedly one; millions enjoy its output every year. For me, though, that does not mean keeping it flush with public money and shielding it from change; it means fighting for reforms that ensure its long-term sustainability and relevance to the modern world. While it produces many excellent programmes and is an important part of the UK’s extraordinary global influence, it is becoming increasingly apparent—except, perhaps, to the corporation’s most highly paid stars—that the BBC must change further. Its broadcasting model, based on the idea of millions of families watching live broadcasts, is increasingly becoming outdated. It has expanded far beyond its initial remit, in some cases smothering independent local journalism in the process, and it has done all that by levying what is one of Britain’s most regressive taxes—the licence fee.
The White Paper on the renewal of the BBC charter offers us the opportunity to do some very important things: to refocus the corporation on the core functions that justify its present place as a state-funded broadcaster; and, I trust, to wean it off the licence fee gradually, over the longer term, and to open itself up to the calming winds of competition and outside production.
When I was setting out on my career, I and many other journalists got our first jobs at thriving local papers. Such papers provided British journalism with a natural talent-scouting system, and that has profited all of us, including the BBC. The BBC was never meant to compete with newspapers, yet the BBC News website now undercuts a lot of independent local—and, at times, national—journalism. Local journalists, working directly in their communities, provide an irreplaceable public service. Can the BBC put journalists everywhere local newspapers currently employ them? Of course not. By contrast, the BBC now seems to concentrate jobs in London and Manchester, and even major cities are suffering the consequences. In my experience, BBC Birmingham is all too often treated not even as Cinderella: frankly, we are not even allowed to sweep the floor when it comes to BBC largesse. I very much applaud the campaign by the Birmingham Post and the Birmingham Mail to try to get a fairer deal for our region.
When the move was made to Manchester, it was lauded because it would increase regional diversity, but in some respects the corporation saw that as the beginning and the end of the process of attempting to reduce its overdependence on the capital. In many ways, the biggest effect has been to increase house prices in leafy Cheshire suburbs, rather than to create genuine regional diversity.
As a Greater Manchester MP, I feel that the BBC’s move to Salford—not Manchester—has done a lot to improve its diversity, and it is nice to hear a lot of northern accents on the radio these days, which did not use to happen.
What has actually happened is that we have created a bipolar organisation. There has been a move out of other regions, such as Birmingham and other parts of the United Kingdom, to these two centres. That was the natural consequence of the huge sums that were invested. I am not jealous of Salford in that it is obviously fantastic for that community. However, I think the BBC thought, when it came up with this process, that its work was done. I would like genuine diversity, including for the nations, as is discussed in the White Paper, but really for the English regions, with the BBC drilling down into local communities to deliver news and content that makes a difference, but also supporting the private sector.
Current proposals for the BBC to use local newspaper content, such as court circulars and documents—court reporting—are better than nothing, but it is a sad indictment that some local newspapers will now be used, frankly, as wire services for the BBC News website. Previous Governments were rather flat-footed in updating the BBC charter for the online age, and slow to recognise the dangers this unimpeded growth posed to independent journalism and regional diversity.
Another anachronism holding the BBC back over the long term is the licence fee. This might seem strange, given the ferocity with which the BBC’s supporters have fought to defend it, but I believe nothing is doing more to prevent the corporation’s adaptation to the modern world of multi-platform working. My wife and I grew up in a world of mass broadcasts and TV specials watched by tens of millions, yet the number of times a month we watch live TV together these days can be counted on one hand. That is not just due to working in this place, but is genuinely encountered by many people around the country. To younger people raised in the days of on-demand services, Netflix and YouTube, that vanished era is not even a memory, yet the BBC remains committed—addicted—to the regressive tax of the licence fee.
If we came up with a licence fee today, how could we justify it? It is a flat levy—the same for rich and poor alike—which is charged to anybody watching British programming, regardless of whether they consume BBC services or not, and it is backed by the threat of criminal prosecution. It really does not have any place in the broadcasting model for the 21st century.
Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that the BBC is the envy of countries the world over? In Australia, where I come from, we have the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Public service broadcasting is important in this debate. The ABC, which is funded largely by the Government, has experienced cut on cut in its budgeting over the years, and has suffered as a result.
Public service broadcasting is apparently not so universally regarded in that way in Scotland, according to the speech of the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire.
We must not be reckless with the BBC. As I said earlier, it would be an act of vandalism simply to turn off the tap without giving it time to transition to a new way of doing things. However, the message from this renewal of the charter must be loud and clear: it needs to move on, and the days of the licence fee are, I hope, numbered. That must be acknowledged by BBC managers, who are even now demanding a higher fee, the extension of the fee to websites and continued criminal prosecution. The mid-term review is a sensible health check to see whether the BBC is moving in the right direction. I hope that it will encompass the BBC’s move towards independent production, which is ultimately the only way in which it can move away from and wean itself off the licence fee.
The White Paper contains some promising steps in the right direction. For example, opening up more production contracts to independent companies will allow them to compete for public broadcasting funding. However, there must be clear targets for such diversification so that Ministers and MPs can hold BBC managers to account and ensure they are making adequate progress. They must also make sure that the BBC is proactive in finding fairer and more imaginative ways of funding its services. Many of its assets, such as its back catalogue, are not core to its public service function and could easily be made subscription services. Like other Members, I welcome the initiative to bring in the National Audit Office when it comes to the BBC’s activities.
I have been following the hon. Gentleman’s words with great interest, and I credit him with and pay respect to him for his experience in this area. If, however, he is looking for logic in the structure of the BBC, he will be sorely disappointed because the BBC is above that. The BBC is an utterly unique institution—there is no similar corporate structure anywhere else—and we have a system which on paper seems bizarre, but by heaven it works. Can we not just glory in this special, unique and, dare I say it, British BBC?
I hasten to add that the hon. Gentleman has now secured his place on the BBC News papers review for the next season.
In view of what the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (John Nicolson) said earlier, if there is a place for a lefty luvvie on the board, may I just say I am certainly one of those things?
I am sure those comments have been noted outside this place, and the hon. Gentleman can expect the headhunters to call shortly.
As I was saying, many of the BBC’s assets, such as its back catalogue, are not core to its public services, and if there are both audiences and quality programming, such services will survive and thrive. If not, why are we taxing the poorest to pay for them? Such change may seem difficult and even painful to people who have grown up being used to the status quo, but a fair and flexible funding model and a narrower focus on the core functions of public service broadcasting will be good not just for independent journalists and their viewers, but for the BBC as well.